When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to South Florida for the annual Everglades Coalition Conference last week he brought a terrific gift along: A plan for a large national wildlife refuge north of Lake Okeechobee to preserve the ecologically diverse Florida prairie and livelihoods of the area's ranchers.
The refuge would extend through the Kissimmee River Valley down to Lake Okeechobee in parts of Polk, Osceola, Indian River, Okeechobee and Highlands counties. It will expand the scope and approach of Everglades restoration by protecting the Glades' original headwaters from Orlando's encroaching suburbs.
It's a bold plan that has vision -- but no money or congressional support yet. And that will be the biggest challenge, Mr. Salazar acknowledged. But he told the Everglades gathering that he's optimistic because, ``The Everglades are probably one of the most important ecosystems we have in the United States.''
The vast ecosystem is also the major drinking-water source for urban South Florida, so additional efforts -- like the refuge plan -- to enhance the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a joint state-federal project of ambitious proportions, are welcome.
What's different in the refuge plan is that the federal government, in addition to purchasing about 50,000 acres from willing sellers, will work with Florida ranchers to buy their development rights -- usually in the form of easements -- on another 100,000 acres. The ranchers stay in business, but by owning the development rights the federal government will prevent future sprawl oozing toward the Everglades. Florida's new agricultural commissioner, Adam Putnam, praised the plan during the conference.
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