Watch a video about how ranchers are working to protect their lands for future generations. Ranching is the most compatible form of agriculture we have found for conservation. It keeps natural communities intact, rare and imperiled species thrive with the ranching and cattle culture. These areas are the watersheds that provide South Florida with drinking water. As ranches vanish, so will the habitats.
While Florida is known for its beaches and theme parks, its ranching heritage dates back to the 16th Century, earlier than any other state. Today, many of Florida’s productive ranchlands are still operated as family businesses and, due to their location in the vast longleaf pine savannahs and wetlands that is the headwaters for the Everglades, prime for protection.
The water saved by saving ranches from development is reason alone to focus our work here. Floridians primarily receive their water from our underground aquifer, and keeping water on the land recharges this fundamental resource. But when you protect these open spaces and restore the water flow, you also maintain habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and preserve the ranching culture for future generations.
Bud Adams took over management of their family ranches from his father in 1948. Today three generations work together in the ranching business, including 86-year-old Bud, his three sons and four of his 12 grandchildren.
“Protecting Florida’s native lands can’t get any more important to me,” says Adams, whose Northern Everglades ranch property is vast and in many places unspoiled.
Doyle Carlton III has been on cattle ranches for as long as he can remember. The ranching life got into his blood early. It did the same for his children. Now, the Carltons are a 5th generation ranching family—and counting.
“As your family increases, if you’re working on the same amount of land it’s hard to support the increase. What does that often lead to? Having to sell the land,” Carlton says. “My children and my grandchildren have no desire to sell the land. They want to stay in ranching.”
Traditional ranching still taking place in the Northern Everglades involves a land ethic that includes sustainable agriculture and habitat management that supports dozens of globally rare and imperiled species.
The Conservancy works around the globe with people who supply our food – farmers, ranchers and fishermen – to find conservation solutions that are good for businesses, consumers and nature. We recognize the connection between sustainable food and a healthy planet.
But with a slim profit margin, these ranchers face many challenges to preserving their historic way of life.
The Wohl family owns the 5,200-acre Rafter T Ranch in Highlands County in a family corporation with 17 shareholders and 10 heirs, with more heirs on the way. As a result, Jimmy Wohl says the ability to pass ranch property to future generations can be difficult, costly and, in some situations, require piecemeal sale of property. That is one of the reasons he is so pleased to put a 1,064- acre conservation easement on a portion of his ranch, acquired by the Conservancy and the U.S. Air Force in April 2013.
The easement will save important conservation land like rare scrub, help wildlife like Florida panther and black bear, replenish water supplies, and protect the military mission of the Avon Park Air Force Range.
The Conservancy works with ranchers like Adams, Carlton and Wohl to encourage conservation easements, which allow them to pass on intact ranchlands to future generations. The easements provide an additional funding source for ranchers, allowing them to maintain their traditional lifestyle across generations.
“With the high valuation of land today and inheritance taxes, this can be difficult. Easements assure the preservation of ranchlands – with their grass, trees and animals – forever,” said Adams. “Florida ranches are also a source of food, clean water and air for city people. The grass and trees recycle carbon from city automobiles. As Florida becomes more urbanized, we’ll need these open spaces.”
Carlton got interested in a conservation easement on part of the family’s Fisheating Creek property. “We felt like by putting it in an easement we would be assured the ranch would be preserved,” he says.
He looks forward to seeing more of “native Florida” return after restoration that’s part of the conservation arrangement —which he said wouldn’t have happened without The Nature Conservancy.
“It used to be us—agriculture—and them— the conservationists—with a wide median between,” Carlton says. “Now we’re seeing that while we don’t have a 100 percent common mindset, we have more in common than we thought. We can work together to the benefit of both sides.”
“We are forever grateful to The Nature Conservancy and Department of Defense for providing this opportunity,” said Jimmy Wohl of his recent easement. “Not only are we providing assurances that the men and women who protect this country will always have the Avon Park Air Force Range to practice their skills, but we also have assurances that the owners of Rafter T Ranch continue to preserve the Florida ranching heritage and the gifts which Mother Nature has graciously bestowed upon us.”
Bud Adams knows the big picture includes economic and recreational benefits. “Tourism is a big industry and people want to see ranches and orange groves, not just what’s back home,” he adds. “Here you can see Florida as it was 100 years ago; we still use horses and dogs to herd the cattle.
“Part of our land borders a big lake and its fish feed the osprey, eagle and other birds. Our prairie is home to endangered sparrows and scrub-jays,” he says. “But the main thing is the ranch is large enough to be a complete ecosystem. It needs to be kept intact; 10 acres of beautiful land is not enough for deer and turkeys.
“These lands support my livelihood and that of my family. Our family intends to stay. It would be good to come back in 2050 and see ranches, cattle, horses and cowboys,” Adams says.
And that would be a good thing for natural Florida as well.