Cattle ranchers and conservationists are banding together to protect the northern Everglades.

In the land of Disney and Daytona, amusement parks and beaches come to mind more than open range and cattle. But Florida, people are surprised to discover, has the longest history of ranching of any state in the country and a legacy of cowboying as long as the peninsula itself.

When Juan Ponce de León landed in Florida in 1513, frontier was the perfect word to describe the place. The Spanish explorer hadn’t discovered the Fountain of Youth he’d set out to find, but he had found pristine rangeland. When Ponce de León returned in 1521, he brought horses and seven Andalusian cattle, effectively beginning cattle production in this country. Some five centuries later, the state has about 12 million acres of grazing land — about a third of its total land area. Cattle ranches cover 6 to 8 million acres, and the state boasts more of the top 25 cow-calf operations in the country than any other state, including Deseret, the leading producer of beef cattle in the United States.

But most of the Sunshine State’s ranching takes place almost invisibly, hidden even from Floridians, in the state’s interior. About two-thirds of Florida’s almost 2 million head of cattle can be found from Orlando to the Everglades, in a part of the state that contains almost 4 million acres of rangeland. Here, among palms and pines, cypress forests, palmetto prairies, meandering streams, rivers, lakes, and freshwater marshes, ranchers and cattle coexist with Florida panthers, black bears, whooping cranes, alligators, and thousands of other species (68 of which are either threatened or endangered).

Though in some places this mysterious interior is only miles away from Disney World, it is another world completely. An agricultural center and an ecological hot spot, it is the last of the Florida frontier and a vital piece in one of the country’s most important conservation puzzles. Which is why ranchers and conservationists have partnered up to protect it. Under threat from population, pollution, and development pressures, the original Florida that shaped the country’s first cowboys is the focus of critical efforts to conserve not just Florida’s ranching heritage but all the land, water, and wildlife that go with it.

When the Department of the Interior contemplated a grand initiative to preserve and protect critical lands, waters, fish, and wildlife in the northern Everglades, planners looked west. Modeled after Montana’s successful Crown of the Continent initiative, the Department of the Interiors’s Greater Everglades restoration effort represents a new paradigm for conservation in the eastern United States, whereby a refuge made up of newly acquired public lands spread across the landscape (not necessarily in contiguous tracts) is combined with a larger area of conservation easements. To work, the plan requires the cooperation and support of local landowners, many of whom are the very same ranchers who have been carrying on Florida’s cattle-producing heritage for generations.

The need for their buy-in indicates just how much, regardless of state, the hope for protecting the land lies with ranchers who embrace partnerships for conservation. Enter Montana cowboy conservationists, who visited their Flori­da counterparts and encouraged them to work more cooperatively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior.

“Some longtime members of the Rocky Mountain Front Advisory Committee met with members of the Northern Everglades Alliance, a group of ranchers and sportsmen who have come together in support of the new and proposed conservation areas in the northern Everglades region,” explains alliance member LeeAnn Adams Simmons of the Adams Ranch, a fourth-generation family-owned and -operated cattle ranch in central and south Florida. The Florida ranchers had established conservation easements with The Nature Conservancy and with the state program Florida Forever, but they had never done business with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

“It was a comfort level thing,” says Simmons. “The Montana folks were able to speak from experience about working with the feds. The ranchers had put conservation easements on their land from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. They explained that it wasn’t really different — they were still running their operations as usual and said they wouldn’t change anything about it. They felt they were treated fairly by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”

The Florida initiative began unfolding in January 2011, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was working with private landowners; conservation groups; and federal, tribal, state, and local agencies to develop a new national wildlife refuge and conservation area to preserve the community’s ranching heritage and conserve the headwaters and fish and wildlife of the Everglades. The plan, which aims to restore one of the great grassland and savanna landscapes of eastern North America, will protect and improve water quality north of Lake Okeechobee, restore wetlands, and connect existing conservation lands and important wildlife corridors to support the Greater Everglades restoration effort.

On January 18, 2012, in a largely symbolic first step in the grand plan, Secretary Salazar accepted a 10-acre donation of land in south-central Florida from The Nature Conservancy to officially establish the new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. It’s the first phase of a multi-phase approach to conserve the Greater Everglades area, which encompasses 4.5 million acres of wilderness and working ranch lands across the southern part of the state. And it’s the first time Salazar, a multi­generation western rancher himself, has deployed conservation easements out of his department to help protect an eastern landscape on a scale typically associated with the West.

If fully realized, the refuge and conservation area will encompass 150,000 acres north of Lake Okeechobee to the outskirts of Orlando. Two-thirds of it — 100,000 acres — will be protected through conservation easements purchased from willing sellers. (The operative word here is willing: With easements, private landowners retain ownership of their land, as well as the right to work the land to raise cattle or crops. The easements ensure that the land can’t be developed.) For the additional 50,000 acres for the refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is authorized to buy private lands outright.

It’s a huge step in the right direction, says Richard A. Hilsenbeck, director of conservation projects for The Nature Conservancy, which has been instrumental in Everglades protection and restoration efforts for decades. “The effort to conserve the wildlife, water, and way of life of much of Florida in fact depends on the success of conserving the ranch lands and cattle ranching culture of the Everglades watershed,” he says. “Without these ranches, our quality of life — both in terms of the quality and quantity of our fresh water and a portion of the food we depend on — would be greatly diminished for many Floridians.”

Hilsenbeck, a native Floridian, has worked with numerous ranchers — “some of the finest, most honest and decent people on earth” — to get their family lands protected through the state’s Flori­da Forever program and, more recently, through the Natural Resource Conservation Serv­ice’s Wetlands Reserve Program and the newly established Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. Much of the work of the programs is in acquiring conservation easements over ranches, which allows the lands to remain in productive cattle grazing, on the local tax rolls, and in private management.

“Most of the conservation lands in this region — either publicly owned lands or private lands under conservation easements — are former or current cattle ranches, and they are desirable for conservation because of the abundant native habitats and wildlife they support and the sound stewardship they received under cattle rancher ownership,” Hilsenbeck says. Many of these ranch lands support near-wilderness areas with few paved roads and, combined, encompass hundreds of square miles of nearly unbroken natural and agricultural land uses. Most of the ranches, Hilsenbeck adds, are a mosaic of improved pastures and native lands, and that mix of land uses — along with the ranchers’ use of ecologically beneficial prescribed fire as a primary management tool — provides an outstanding wildlife habitat.

“These ranchers,” Hilsenbeck says, “are excellent stewards of the lands under their ownership, and in Florida ranching is the most compatible form of agriculture that we in The Nature Conservancy have found with imperiled species conservation and native habitat management.” But as much as it’s about wildlife, he says, it’s equally about people. “It’s important for people to understand that much of their water is captured, stored, and slowly filtered on these interior Florida ranch lands that provide the rural land uses that allow for some of that water to eventually seep into the Floridan aquifer that underlies much of the state and is the source of the freshwater supply for the majority of Florida’s residents, agriculture, and industry.”

The critical role ranching plays in conservation isn’t lost on sixth-generation Florida cattle rancher Cary Lightsey. For him, restoring and protecting the Everglades watershed means preserving the state’s cattle-producing heritage and the ranch land his family has been working since the 1850s. “Some of the best cattle grazing grasslands are in central Florida,” says Lightsey, who runs more than 9,000 mama cows on family ranches located mainly in the headwaters of the Everglades. “We can grow quality grasses year-round on some of these pastures and are able to run a pair and a half per acre. [Central Florida’s] large ranches are very proud of their heritage and the quality of cattle and wildlife.”

Lightsey and a growing number of ranchers in Everglades country know that the future of a healthy Florida depends on protecting both. “We put 85 percent of our ranch lands into a conservation easement, so it will never be developed,” Lightsey says. In a state where developers buy roughly 200,000 acres of farming land every year, that’s an important stake in the ground. “Many large ranchers are interested in doing the same [conservation] easements, and we all follow the Florida Cattlemen’s Best Management Practices (BMPs) on our ranches.” Among those practices are conserving recharge areas that release nutrients not taken up by the grasses before they reach lakes or streams feeding into the Everglades. The Lightseys also practice rotational grazing, resting pastures between seasons, and protecting soil from erosion. They recycle water in their orange groves and harvest nonnative vegetation (and animals) several times a year. Every other year, they perform prescribed burns on parts of their ranches. They also host ecological tours to help educate the public about the importance of working with nature and valuing the natural assets of the land.

“The ranching lifestyle and preserving the wildlife work hand in hand,” says Lightsey, whose family won the 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Award (only the second time a rancher east of the Mississippi has been chosen). One of his central Florida ranches hosts 28 different endangered species, both animal and plant — a stewardship he and many of his cattle-raising colleagues take seriously. “There are a total of 20 bald eagle nests on our ranches, along with other Florida native species only found in the central part of the state, such as the Florida scrub jay,” he says. “There are three large planned wildlife refuges in central Florida located on some of these same ranch lands. Forty percent of our ranch land has been left native to provide a corridor for the wildlife to roam and feed. The cattle and wildlife are very compatible.”

Good news for Florida’s natural lega­cy: so, too, it seems, are the cattlemen and conservationists.

From the December 2012 issue. Carlton Ward Jr.’s books include Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier (University Press of Florida, 2009) and Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition (Compass Editions, 2013).

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