New land deals in Southern Florida could benefit rare cats if they’re mapped carefully
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Florida panthers could get a bit more room to roam in the southern part of the state with a proposed expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System in the region — but conservation groups says federal land managers are missing a key part of the conservation puzzle.
The proposed Headwaters of the Everglades National Wildlife Refuge would protect 150,000 acres of ranch lands north of Lake Okeechobee at a price tag of 700 million dollars. The patchwork quilt of properties created would include 50,000 acres purchased outright while a conservation easement would be placed on 100,000 additional acres to prevent development.
The plan is aimed at Everglades restoration, but wildlife advocates said that, if the project is planned right, it could be a huge benefit to on the country’s rarest animals.
“We believe there is a better and more strategic way to spend at least some of massive amounts of money the American people are being asked to invest,” said Matt Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
Schwartz said the Fish and Wildlife Service should be looking at preserving core panther habitat, including a parcel recently sold to a developer interested in building a convential power plant, euphemistically billed as a clean energy center.
Schwartz said the land is of the highest important for the critically endangered Florida panther and numerous other plant and animal species which share its habitat, including wood storks, crested caracara, black bears, wild turkey, eastern indigo snakes and fox squirrels.
Schwartz said his group is willing to fight the proposed power plant project, but suggested that the parcel be made part of the wildlife refuge expansion.
The marriage between state, federal, and private interests which would be accomplished by incorporating Panther Glades (including the newly acquired Florida Power and Light property) into the new Headwaters of the Everglades National Wildlife Refuge could not be better, Schwartz explained via email.
Panther Glades has already been extensively studied for its wildlife and habitat importance. It is also a key part of the northern watershed of Big Cypress National Preserve which provides fresh, clean water to much of Everglades National Park and other public lands further south.
As of May of this year, Panther Glades was ranked highest in importance of all Florida Forever “Critical Natural Lands Projects” in south Florida. In the state’s current fiscal conditions, however, Florida Forever has received zero dollars in funding from the Florida legislature.