The Best/Worst Time for a Florida Refuge

[imgbelt img=palmetto-prairie320.jpg]Creating a wildlife preserve in the Everglades has been an ongoing effort. Fish and wildlife managers say the recession makes now an ideal time to get it accomplished.


[imgcontainer left] [img:palmetto-prairie320.jpg] [source]Andrew Moore

Vast palmetto prairie in the Florida Everglades provides habitat for native and endangered species.

Multiple efforts have been advanced in recent years to create and expand an Everglades wildlife refuge, an ambitious and costly goal in such financially uncertain times.

The recession hit Florida harder than most other states. Despite the economic climate, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed creating an Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Central Florida.  And although Florida Governor Rick Scott has indicated that now is not the time to spend tax dollars on conservation projects, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says this is actually an ideal moment to achieve such goals.

With private land deals slowed by the recession, the federal wildlife agency proposes to “capitalize on the real estate economy to protect biologically important lands.”  Wildlife officials realize that if the economy turns around, and now-idling developments are financed, that window of opportunity could close.

Charlie Pelizza, Refuge Manager at Pelican Bay in Florida, says, “There are at least sixty Developments of Regional Impact—residential developments primarily—that are in the [Everglades] landscape that are either in initial stages, or have already been approved.  When the economy improves, those could proceed.”

Pelizza says that if those development projects do proceed, the Service would lose the ability to restore water quality for wildlife and for Floridians.  In addition, existing wildlife corridors would be further fragmented, limiting the range and viability of Florida’s most endangered species.

Pelizza also cites nascent alternative energy projects — for biofuels, wind, and solar power — that would likely move ahead when the economy improves, significantly altering the landscape.

closed in October of last year.        

This land was sought primarily to improve the water quality in South Florida ecosystems by taking a chunk of the Everglades out of heavy agricultural production. The current proposal for a refuge cites similar goals for improving water quality, but rather than restoring an ecosystem, the Service seeks only to preserve existing habitats that are increasingly rare but currently in healthy ecological condition.

spoke out against the U.S. Sugar-Everglades deal during his campaign for office, in August of 2010. 

As governor Scott has designated no funds for the state’s conservation land acquisition program, Florida Forever, in his recommendation for the 2011-2012 budget. Scott did, however, recommend $17 million for lower Everglades restoration projects. He has told reporters that his current priority is creating jobs.

Earlier this month, state legislators introduced a bill to allow the development of golf courses on wildlife habitat in state parks. One park named specifically was Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Palm Beach County, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River.

Although the bill has since been withdrawn, it indicates the current legislature’s willingness to sacrifice wildlife habitat for projected economic benefits. The bill grew out of talks between Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus and Governor Scott, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service sees the current economic situation very differently. Because Florida land prices have fallen from the highs of the land speculation and development boom, the Service sees this as an opportune time to purchase lands at more affordable rates. The Service argues that conditions are actually ripe for funding conservation projects.

According to Pelican Bay’s refuge manager Pelizza, royalties collected from offshore oil drilling could provide funding for the proposed Everglades project. A second major source of potential funding comes from the Federal Duck Stamp, required of waterfowl hunters.  The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law in 1934, generates revenue for wetlands acquisition for what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System.