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 conservation easement on a portion of his ranch.
Easements over important habitat on 1,064 acres of Rafter T and on the 318-acre Miller Tract, both in Highlands County, were acquired Friday by The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Air Force. See a map of the property>>
The easements will not only help keep these ranches whole, they 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. Like the Wohls, the Millers will use the easement proceeds to help maintain their ranching lifestyle and enhance the management of their cattle operation.
The easements were bought using funds awarded to Highlands County through a state funded Defense Infrastructure Grant (DIG) and federally funded Readiness and Environment Protection Initiative (REPI) in 2011. Development of the protected working cattle ranches might have compromised the mission of the Range or interfered with training and testing, as well as impacted numerous plant and animal species. Easements are an economical way of protecting Florida’s most critical resources while allowing the landowner to own and manage the land.
“Cattle ranching provides a very low return on investment, which makes it difficult to pay inheritance taxes or dividends to shareholders,” Wohl said. “With the easement placed on the property, we have some liquidity. Furthermore, this easement prevents any subdividing of the property and requires the natural communities be preserved and managed.
“We are forever grateful to The Nature Conservancy and Department of Defense for providing this opportunity. 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,” said Wohl, a recent recipient of a stewardship award from Audubon of Florida.
“These win-win-win partnerships allow us to preserve habitat, protect Florida’s ranching heritage and prevent incompatible development adjacent to bases,” said Greg Knecht, The Nature Conservancy’s director of protection in Florida. “We look forward to working with the military whenever we can, since our Florida bases contain acres and acres of native habitat critical for a variety of important species.”
“The establishment of these easements will facilitate minimum encroachment to Avon Park Air Force Range ensuring our warfighters are able to obtain the most realistic training we can provide,” said Lt. Col. Paul Neidhardt, Commander, Avon Park Air Force Range. “Not only will the easements provide a buffer for our training, they will also help preserve the Florida environment by providing habitats for threatened and endangered species.”
Along with the Conservancy and the Range, a variety of partners played vital roles in the coordinated effort to protect these ranchlands, including the Department of Defense, Central Florida Regional Planning Council, who worked with Highlands County, Enterprise Florida and the State of Florida:
Department of Defense: “The Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program works with partners like The Nature Conservancy and others to protect buffer land that ensures that our military can test, train, and operate now and into the future. Through such innovative, cost-effective partnerships, REPI supports the warfighter, protects the taxpayer, and helps preserve valuable natural habitat," said John Conger, Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment.
Central Florida Regional Planning Council: “Thanks to support from Enterprise Florida, Inc., the United States Air Force, and Highlands County, these conservation easements will permanently protect the public, the military training mission of the Range, and enable the landowners to continue their ranching activities,” said Program Director Helen Sears.
Enterprise Florida: "This is a great example of how the Defense Infrastructure Grant program has been successfully utilized in protecting our military installations and, through this partnership, allowed for the continued protection of the surrounding environment," said Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope, who also serves as president & CEO of Enterprise Florida. "Strong actions like this exemplify Florida's commitment to being the most military-friendly state in the nation."
State of Florida: “This project was made possible by DIG, and DIG along with programs like Rural and Family Lands and Florida Forever are what make base buffering possible and allow lands to remain in ranching,” said Rep. Cary Pigman.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.