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Florida

Landmark Protection of Ranch Will Restore Water, Save Species


Hatchineha Ranch

Cutthroat grass at Hatchineha Ranch.

Hatchineha Ranch

Cattle grazing at Hatchineha Ranch.

"The ability to keep intact a large, critical landscape with outstanding resource value is exciting."

Keith Fountain
Director of land acquisition for the Conservancy in Florida
 

By Jill Austin

From panthers to scrub-jays to critical water flow in the northern Everglades — The Nature Conservancy's 2008 protection of a central Florida ranch has a lot of beneficiaries. And a lot of admirers.

"Omigosh, that was the best news," said a waitress at a Perkins restaurant outside of Orlando, some 30 miles from the 5,134-acre Hatchineha Ranch. "Where I live backs right up to that land and you can't believe all the wildlife there."

The ranch had been the proposed site of nearly 5,000 single- and multi-family homes and a golf course.

But the region has one of the highest concentrations of threatened and endangered species in the country — and such development would have jeopardized plants and animals like the Florida panther and scrub-jay.

"The ability to keep intact a large, critical landscape with outstanding resource value is exciting," said Keith Fountain, the Conservancy's director of land acquisition in Florida.

Protecting and Connecting Lands to Restore Water

In addition to the excitement about the wildlife and habitat protected at Hatchineha Ranch, Nature Conservancy scientists and land stewards look forward to the protection of what mostly goes unseen — the water flow.

Hatchineha Ranch lies in the Everglades watershed, a vast area that stretches from Orlando to the southern end of the state and into Florida Bay.

Water once gently flowed through the watershed — down the Kissimmee River, into Lake Okeechobee and out across the River of Grass, the name given to the Everglades by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

But massive drainage changes made in the 1920s to prevent flooding nearly destroyed the ecosystem. For years the federal government has partnered with the state to undo this man-made plumbing and restore a more natural system of water storage and flow.

As part of this effort, The Nature Conservancy is working in the northern Everglades to keep large natural lands intact and connect them to current conservation sites.

The location of Hatchineha Ranch is critical: It's adjacent to the 8,250-acre Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve and connects protected lands on the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, forming an extensive conservation landscape of more than 55,000 acres.

"With the restoration of the Kissimmee River nearing completion, our goal is to keep water on these properties longer and restore the natural timing of water flow into Lake Okeechobee," said Doug Shaw, a hydrologist and Florida's director of science and conservation strategies.

Following a Successful Conservation Model

To protect the ranch, The Nature Conservancy worked out a partnership with the owner, Hatchineha Ranch LLC.

As co-owners of the land, the two groups will pursue multiple strategies — such as wetlands mitigation, conservation banking for imperiled species and the sale of land to government agencies for addition to protected parks — as a way to pay for the purchase.

They will restore water flow on the newly protected ranch by filling drainage ditches installed to work cattle, much like what the Conservancy did at its nearby signature restoration project, The Disney Wilderness Preserve.

This model project created 16 years ago was a way for The Walt Disney Company and later the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to pay for wetlands lost during construction and has proven that natural hydrology can be restored.

After years of restoration efforts — including extensive use of controlled burning — the 12,000-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve now retains water on nature's schedule and serves as a teaching site for mitigation projects nationwide.

With the long-range goal of restoring water flow in the Everglades slowly under way, the immediate success of the wildlife protected at Hatchineha Ranch is plenty for the neighbors.

"I can't believe it," the Perkins' waitress said. "There are deer everywhere, lots of bald eagles. I've even seen a panther out there."

"You saved so many lives," she added, smiling. "So many little, little lives."

Jill Austin is a senior conservation writer in Florida.

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