When they hear the name “Everglades,” most people picture the classic “river of grass,” the sawgrass-and-mangrove habitat found in Everglades National Park at the southwestern tip of Florida. But the headwaters of this system are actually more than 140 miles north, just outside the city limits of Orlando and less than 20 miles from Disney World. There, tiny Shingle Creek begins the gradual southwestern flow of water that ultimately feeds the entire subtropical marsh downstream. In between, the water travels through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and the massive Lake Okeechobee on its way to the sea. According to David Houghton of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, “Without the Kissimmee Lakes area, there’d be no Everglades National Park.”
This corridor of central Florida from Orlando to Okeechobee, known as the Northern Everglades, is made up entirely of privately held land—mostly owned by cattle ranchers, farmers, and real-estate speculators—which means that it is not currently protected from irresponsible development or poor land-use practices. This situation is critical because the region’s mixture of wet and dry habitats is also home to some of the nation’s most threatened or endangered animal species, including the Florida Panther, Florida black bear, Audubon’s crested caracara, gopher tortoise, and some thirty others. Just ten years ago, the entire population of Florida panthers was down to just 65 animals, dangerously close to the point of no return. Although the number of panthers has rebounded to 175, biologists fear that as the population expands northward, it will not have access to enough habitat to continue this growth trend.
This is not simply a question of preserving the habitat that exists now, however. More than a century of abuse has left much of the landscape in need of serious restoration. In the late 1880’s attempts were made to drain much of the Everglades, and although these projects ultimately failed, they disturbed and damaged the natural hydrology of the system. Whereas the Kissimmee basin once acted as a sponge—absorbing water during times of plenty and serving as a reservoir during droughts—the current water regime is much less stable, what NWRA’s Houghton calls a “boom or bust system.” Over the same period, landowners have engaged in fire-suppression, as well, which inevitably altered habitat dependent on seasonal burns. Undoing the damage caused by the networks of ditches and canals and performing controlled burns will be vital steps to restoring wetlands and returning the Northern Everglades to a more natural system.
NWRA has launched an aggressive conservation agenda to protect Florida’s last large wild landscape and to restore those endangered species whose survival depends on natural habitat. This project marks the first phase of a larger Northern Everglades Initiative, and NWRA will depend on partnerships with local ranchers and other landowners, the state of Florida, and the water management districts that depend on the area to supply drinking water to over 6 million people in the state’s most urban areas. Phase I includes the creation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge that will protect 50,000 acres of diverse habitat through acquisition and another 100,000 acres through conservation easements. Phases 2 and 3 will expand two existing National Wildlife Refuges and potentially create a conservation corridor from the Kissimmee Lakes down the Kissimmee River to Everglades National Park.
Although there will be large procedural elements to the project—land purchases, conservation easements negotiated, and land-use rules established—Houghton is clear about the reason for it all: “This project is about cats, bears, and the other species that will benefit from conserved and restored habitat.” NWRA will also work with the U. S Fish & Wildlife Service in boots-on-the-ground efforts to restore habitat on private land. For a project this big, Houghton says, it’s important that the “Conservation Toolbox” have a lot of different tools in it.
In recent decades, Florida has undergone incredible growth, which has put intense pressure on many of the state’s natural resources. Because real-estate development in the region has slowed because of the recent economic downturn, conservationists have been granted a unique window of opportunity to tie up these land deals before pressure from developers increases again. The Orvis Company is supporting this timely creation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge by partnering with its customers in a matching funds grant with a goal of $60,000.
“By helping to support such a vital and timely conservation effort, we can all help to preserve and restore the habitat necessary to ensure the survival of the Florida panther and other endangered species,” said Orvis CEO Perk Perkins. “Big cats and bears are symbols of the kind of untrammeled wilderness that outdoors enthusiast cherish. Our customers are committed to doing their part to protect our country’s vital natural resources and realize that the work that the National Wildlife Refuge Association and its partners are doing in Florida is vital to maintaining our wild lands.”