Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a sprawling conservation area in the Everglades watershed
Explosive growth continues to pressure Florida’s natural resources, and climate change will drive more development inland. The hope is to push back against the impact.
A new federal proposal calls for creating a conservation area that would span 12 counties in Florida, from the Everglades’ headwaters in the center of the state to sawgrass prairies further south, preserving a region that is home to imperiled species like the Florida panther, the official state animal.
The Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area would encompass freshwater marshes, pine flatwoods and agricultural pastures, significantly extending protected lands within a watershed that spans much of the peninsula. Among the areas previously designated in the Everglades, the country’s largest subtropical wilderness, are the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, which in 1947 became the first preserve to safeguard this region’s natural resources.
The proposal comes as explosive growth continues to pressure Florida’s natural spaces and as rising seas and more damaging hurricanes are expected to push development inland. The construction boom threatens not just wilderness but also working farms and ranches in the state’s heartland.
“We all know that development is coming,” said Kathy Burchett, refuge supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that drafted the proposal. “In a blink of an eye, there is another expansion of a highway.”
The conservation area would enlarge the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a network of some 18 million acres set aside in the state as connected spaces where animals like panthers and bears can roam. And it would support the $21 billion-plus restoration of the Everglades, a watershed that supplies the drinking water of some 9 million Floridians.
The Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area would begin near Lakeland in central Florida and stretch to the southwest, bordering the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area and encircling part of Lake Okeechobee before ending at the Big Cypress National Preserve. The proposal is centered on a 4 million-acre swath, although the land would be acquired only from willing sellers, making its ultimate size somewhat hard to predict.