Beyond the dirt tracks and swamps of the Florida Everglades lies a narrow, unremarkable strip of land that has taken on outsize importance in the battle to save the state’s critically endangered panthers. Barely 11 miles (18km) long and a mile wide, Chaparral Slough occupies a forgotten corner of south-west Florida, where cattle roam, cowboys still ride the prairie and birds of prey soar overhead.
This tract of ranchland and wilderness was recently acquired as part of the Florida Forever state conservation programme, which buys, or pays landowners to preserve, parcels of land rich in natural resources or habitat critical to the survival of threatened wildlife species. It is a small but crucial piece in the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a 17.7m-acre network of interconnecting landscapes that allows many of the state’s 131 imperilled animals, including panthers and bears, to roam freely.
Lindsay Stevens, Florida director of land protection at the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit involved in the project, says: “It’s important for panthers and other wildlife to have a protected corridor so that they can move and have genetic diversity to ensure the long-term survival and health of their species, and Chaparral Slough is a really important piece of the puzzle.”
Linking two much larger areas of preserved land to the north and south, the story of Chaparral Slough is also symbolic of a wider, undeniable truth: large-scale conservation takes time and money. Taxpayers paid $10.6m (£8.8m) for the land, with the owner – a ranching, cattle and timber company called Lykes Brothers – working alongside the Nature Conservancy to maintain it with guaranteed protections against its sale or development.
The negotiations, however, took eight years, and due to the fickle way Florida Forever is funded, using varying amounts of dollars allocated each year at the whim of the state’s legislature, the agreement remained uncertain until the moment it was signed.
Fewer than 250 of Florida’s panthers remain in the wild. So far this year, 25 have been killed, the vast majority in collisions with vehicles. And while the mechanisms of government slowly turn, their survival becomes ever more perilous.
Like many things in the conservation arena, it takes time, patience and tenacity to have these projects fall together
It is one reason wildlife advocacy groups in Florida are welcoming a potentially gamechanging conservation bill: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Currently making its way through Congress with bipartisan support, the bill could become law before the end of the year.
Supporters have called it the most significant piece of wildlife legislation since the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). If passed, it would allocate $1.3bn annually to help implement states’ official wildlife action plans (Swaps). A recent report highlighted that the ESA has been hampered by inadequate resources, despite more than 1,300 species of plant and animal in the US being endangered or threatened.
Florida wildlife officials don’t yet know how large a slice the state is likely to receive, but some unfunded land-acquisition projects, similar to Chaparral Slough, are included in the Swap, and are therefore eligible for the money.
Stevens says it can’t come soon enough: “It was in 2014 that we first proposed the Chaparral Slough project to the state using Florida Forever funds and, like many things in the conservation arena it just takes time and patience and tenacity to have these projects fall together.
“The Nature Conservancy has been working at this for several decades now, to help build a contiguous panther corridor so they can move from south Florida, where they live on protected lands that the state and federal government and other partners have established, and disperse up to the central part of Florida.”
The hope is that extra money from the federal government can speed up parts of the Florida Forever programme, which has so far acquired 352,000 hectares (870,000 acres) since it was established in 2001.
It may also help smooth the piecemeal approach, which is born out of necessity. Most panther lands are privately owned, largely agricultural – and not every landlord wants to sell.
“If the puzzle to your left doesn’t work, in terms of the piece of property, and the landowner isn’t interested in working with you, then you swerve and go to the right, and with enough tenacity and patience, the pieces start to fall into place,” Stevens says.
Lykes Brothers is an enthusiastic partner. It is one of Florida’s oldest and biggest landowning companies, with a diverse portfolio including: cattle and other farming; forestry; hunting; and managing water resources across 151,000 hectares of ranchland. It is also among the state’s largest citrus producers.
“We proceed with respect for family and community values, and respect for the land, and we’re in our fifth generation now, which is pretty phenomenal,” says Cari Roth, vice-president of governmental and regulatory affairs at Lykes. “With Chaparral Slough, I think the folks involved with Florida Forever always saw it as a place that merited permanent conservation measures. It was really more about the availability of funds and the legislature, the governor and the cabinet which needs to approve all the Florida Forever purchases.”
Roth says she has seen more enthusiasm from the state in recent years and more dollars spent, but overall the programme is still unpredictable, impacting smaller landowners who are willing to sell.
“A person from Tallahassee would come and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to buy your land, but sometime in the future because I don’t really have the money right now.’ And, you know, that doesn’t recognise the economic pressures on landowners in rural Florida,” she says.
“Lykes is a big landowner and we perhaps don’t have the same kinds of pressures, but farming, and agriculture of any sort, is hard. The margins are not big. If the desire is there but not money, then interest sort of wanes.”
Funding has been a common conundrum in almost all of Florida Forever’s negotiations. The programme began with a fanfare and an annual $300m allocation, largely from property stamp taxes, but economic headwinds evolved into a recession and slump in real estate values, and politicians decided taxpayers’ dollars were needed elsewhere.
“As Florida’s economy recovered from that economic downturn, the funding for this programme didn’t,” says Meredith Budd, regional policy director at the Florida Wildlife Federation. Her group is one of the state’s loudest voices advocating for panthers and other threatened species, including the Florida black bear, burrowing owl, American eagle, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, various herons and other wading birds and birds of prey.
“The funding has been abysmal. Historically, it’s been $300m per year under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2019, we received around $30m, and in 2020 around $90m. Our entire state budget is over $92bn. So it seems that the legislature has forgotten about Florida Forever,” she says.
It is a charge that Florida’s recently re-elected Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, denies. “Acquiring lands for conservation and recreation is a top priority for my administration,” DeSantis said in August, as he announced the $56m acquisition of 8,000 hectares across seven properties, the state’s largest in several years.
Stevens is hopeful about the future if the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passes. “We have a scientifically based land-protection priority list that’s been developed through the [Florida Forever] programme, so the vehicle is there.
“The projects are there, they’re prioritised already. The funding will just help us, you know, make hay while the sun shines.”
This article by Richard Luscombe was first published by The Guardian on 3 December 2022. Lead Image: Fewer than 250 of Florida’s panthers remain in the wild, according to officials. Photograph: Florida Fish and Wildlife.
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