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Feds tout progress on Everglades restoration

Massive investments aimed at restoring flows, protecting habitat

The Everglades — river of grass. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The northern Everglades watershed, where Florida’s freshwater begins it’s long, gradual downhill slide through the marshy tip of the peninsula to the sea, is getting some more help.

The Obama administration last week committed $80 million to support farmers and ranchers who voluntarily conserve wetlands on agricultural land in the watershed.

The funding could help restore 23,000 acres of wetlands vital to water quality and wildlife habitat in the greater Everglades ecosystem, including the endangered Florida panther.

Specifically, federal officials said the funds are earmarked to establish a conservation easement on the American Prime property, a key habitat corridor for the endangered Florida panther.

Federal agencies said last May that they have collaborated with private partners to protect this 1,278-acre piece of land in Glades County that is critical for panthers dispersing into habitat further north. A female panther and two kittens were recently photographed near this property — the first documented evidence of a female Florida panther that far north since 1973.

“The Everglades are an icon, an American treasure, and essential to the health and economy of Florida communities,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. “There is much more to do, and we are committed to returning this majestic natural resource to health,” Sutley said, adding that the funding represents  “real and measurable progress in Everglades restoration.

“Today’s announcement … is another important step toward restoring America’s Everglades. We are grateful to the Obama Administration and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for their continuing effort to work together to find the right solutions,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

The Obama administration has invested a total of $1.5 billion in Everglades projects, including almost a $1 billion to jump start key construction projects that will restore water flow and essential habitat.

Along with environmental restoration, the administration estimates that the projects have created 6,600 jobs in Florida. Next year’s budget includes a request for $246 million.

Much of the restoration has focused in restoring flood plains and waters that t flow from the Kissimmee River in the largest restoration project ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So far, about 3,000 acres of the floodplains along the Kissimmee have been restored.

Work has also been started on bridging parts of the cross-state Tamiami Trail highway to restore water flows to Everglades National Park.

The state has committed to spending $879 million to make water quality improvements, and the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year established a 150,000 acre wildlife refuge and conservation area in the Everglades headwaters.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also has received an additional $1,5 million in reprogrammed 2012 funding to secure additional conservation easements on priority parcels of some of the last remaining grass-land savannahs in the Northern Everglades.

The conservation easements permanently maintain land for agriculture and open space. The program’s goal is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. The program also helps landowners to establish long-term conservation and wildlife practices and protection.

The $80 million announced today will fund projects such as an easement on a property known as American Prime, a key habitat corridor for the endangered Florida panther.

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