Several government agencies have banded together with groups as diverse as the Nature Conservancy and Walmart to help protect one of the state's endangered species. The future of the Florida Panther may be helped by this land deal.
It's only 1,278 acres, but the property snatched up by a consortium of government and private groups is on prime Florida Panther habitat along the south shore of the Caloosahatchee River. That's considered the dividing line between the Everglades and Big Cypress - where almost all the panthers live - and the rest of Florida.
Mark Musaus is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the partners in the project.
"It's a critical spot - there's development on either side - so here's one corridor that allows panthers to either naturally move - if they want to cross the river and expand into the south-central part of the state - they can," says Musaus. "So this is really an important tract for us, to be able to provide additional habitat that can be preserved and protected."
The land was slated to be developed, but the owner ran into financial trouble. It was purchased the day before it was to go into foreclosure. The land will be kept in conservation easements, meaning it will be used as a working ranch - but no development will be allowed.
The purchase was covered by approximately $2 million from The Nature Conservancy in private philanthropy, and $1.5 million each from the USFWS and the private entity that purchased the property encumbered by conservation easements. NRCS provided $1.5 million to purchase a conservation easement on 718 acres of the property. Another $200,000 was provided through Acres for America, a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and Walmart.
The Nature Conservancy collected the funding from the various sources and used those funds to buy the property. It also managed the transaction to closing and transferred the property to a private entity subject to a Wetland Reserve Program easement held by NRCS and conservation easements reserved by TNC over the balance of the property.
The new owner, Lone Ranger LLC, will utilize the property in accordance with the conservation easements secured in the transaction. The Nature Conservancy and NRCS will manage the easements. This acquisition will encourage the natural recovery of the Florida panther population by providing habitat where animals can den and stalk prey, and migrate from southern Florida to areas north of the river. Other species will benefit as well.
Through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) conservation easement, NRCS purchased the development rights to the property, saving the land from any future urban development. Completion of the restoration project will bring back the natural functions of the wetland to recharge groundwater, reduce flooding and protect biological diversity. The WRP program provides advice and funding to help landowners restore wetlands, establish long-term conservation actions and improve wildlife habitat on the land.