Protecting the Everglades for 50 Years

Wood storks are smart. These large, long-legged endangered wading birds only build nests and plan to start a family where they know there will be enough food to nourish the babies when they hatch. Their instincts tell them that the time to be feeding fledglings is when Florida’s natural water levels are low during the dry season, when pools of fish are trapped for the taking. 

And taking they do, with one of the fastest jaw-closing speeds known to vertebrates – 25 milliseconds. They simply scoop up the fish and bring them to their nesting chicks nearby. So if wood storks aren’t building nests in the Everglades, which is prime wood stork country, you know there is something wrong with the water cycle and conditions.

Restoring the natural flow of the Everglades so species like the wood stork remain a part of the ecosystem has been at the heart of the Conservancy’s work over the last 50 years in Florida. The Chapter has helped to protect more than 600,000 acres in the Greater Everglades ecosystem, which stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys. Each of the more than 100 transactions the Conservancy has had a hand in, ranging in size from a few acres to more than 60,000 acres, is part of an ongoing story.

The list of parks and preserves the Conservancy has helped protect reads like an Everglades Who’s Who:

  • Big Cypress National Preserve
  • The Disney Wilderness Preserve
  • Corkscrew Swamp
  • Loxahatchee Slough
  • Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve
  • Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve
  • Fisheating Creek
  • Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest
  • Fakahatchee Strand
  • Panther Glades
  • Dupuis Wildlife Management Area

“Many of these early government assists were landscape-scale protection even before there was landscape-scale protection,” said Richard Hilsenbeck, a land conservation expert for the last two decades with the Conservancy in Florida who has detailed the biodiversity and hydrological value of sites.

National headlines resulted from the Conservancy’s key role in purchasing 45,679 acres of sugarcane farmland south of Lake Okeechobee in December 1998, praised by then-Vice President Al Gore as a key component in restoring the Everglades. In a complicated partnership deal between private landowners; conservation groups; and federal, state and regional agencies; the Talisman Sugar Plantation was bought with federal funds to store and cleanse water flowing from sugar farms into the Everglades.

The Conservancy’s land protection staff often serves as the catalyst for land purchases with state and federal partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Water Management District, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Division of Forestry, and the Florida Department of Recreation and Parks. In the Everglades, the Conservancy’s ability to quickly act and close on land before a partner is able has often secured conservation lands into permanent protection. Sometimes the Conservancy buys the land and holds on to it, selling it to the government at the appropriate time and price.

Often it is the Conservancy’s relationship with landowners built up over time – and the common bond of loving the land – that results in a level of trust that brings about an agreement to sell.

Benefitting from this Everglades work, with large expanses of connected conservation land providing the necessary room to roam, is the Florida panther, among hundreds of other species. The Conservancy and partners are currently fundraising to protect 1,500 acres along the Caloosahatchee River that is part of a corridor critical for panther passage into lands north of the river.

The Conservancy’s focus now is on the large ranches of the Northern Everglades and the watershed that feeds into Lake Okeechobee. By buying ranches outright or putting conservation easements over them, the state and federal government not only protect wildlife but also the water supply for south Florida.

Wetlands restored on ranchlands through programs like U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetland Reserve Program allow water to naturally filter its way south or slowly sink into the Floridan aquifer, taking pressure off Lake Okeechobee and reducing the amount of water discharged through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. That, in turn, reduces the negative effect too much freshwater has on estuaries along the Florida coasts.

Getting the water right in the Everglades is an ongoing challenge. A widespread return to more natural water flows could increase the number of wood storks but it isn’t going to be easy: A wood stork pair and two fledglings consume more than 440 pounds of fish each breeding season. But wood storks have returned recently to nesting in the restored wetlands of The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in the Northern Everglades and their numbers are inching upwards elsewhere, a great sign of hope for the Greater Everglades ecosystem.

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