• The Northern Everglades

    A new deal aims to secure the source of the Everglades’ waters.
    By Matt Jenkins
    Photographs by Carlton Ward, Jr.
 

F

or those for whom Florida conjures up images

of Disney World, sun-drenched beaches and retirement villages, a visit to the wide-open savannas in the heart of the state can be a revelation. More than 3.5 million acres of grasslands dotted by occasional stands of cypress, longleaf pine and palmetto palm trees run for roughly 100 miles along the spine of central Florida from Orlando south to Lake Okeechobee.

This little-known section of the state looks nothing like the famous marshlands of the southern Everglades, but it is a crucial part of that greater ecosystem. In fact, without the flow of water from the grasslands of the northern Everglades, a large portion of the “river of grass” in the south would likely dry up. These savannas support an assortment of rare wildlife, including Florida panthers, wood storks and sandhill cranes. And they supply water for about 40 percent of the people in Florida.

“You would think that a state that gets over 60 inches of rain a year would have no problems with water supply, but water is one of the big limiting factors of the economy,” says Jeff Danter, The Nature Conservancy’s former director in Florida. “Reintegrating the way water flows in this whole system is critical not just to the health of the Everglades but to agriculture and people living in Miami, too.”

For 70 years, developers and ranchers have been draining this part of the Everglades to dry out land for pasture, crops and housing developments. And they have been very successful: Doug Shaw, the Conservancy’s science and conservation director in Florida, estimates that nearly half a million acres of wetlands have been lost in the northern Everglades.

But things are beginning to change. In recent years, the Conservancy has built up a lot of momentum here by helping protect crucial properties as part of an effort to restore habitat and get waterways flowing again. The effort has brought together a broad coalition of groups working to create a continuous swath of wildlife habitat and water connectivity from the Everglades headwaters down to Florida Bay.

The project has already linked ranches, wildlife preserves, state parks and even a military bombing range. The effort received a huge boost last year when the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed $89 million to protect and restore 26,000 acres of habitat on five cattle ranches in central Florida. This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward with plans to create a new, 150,000-acre Everglades Head-waters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.

Together, those efforts are finally giving the greater Everglades ecosystem the respect it deserves. “If you think about the Everglades alone—the river of grass—you’re only thinking of half the watershed,” Shaw says. The northern savannas alone are worth conserving, he says. “But it’s also absolutely critical if we’re going to make the Everglades restoration a success.”

Your ears startin’ to pop yet?” says Rowdy Sullivan, the wildlife facilities manager of Blue Head Ranch, with a laugh as he bumps a pickup along the edge of Lake Wales Ridge. The ridge, which tops out just shy of 300 feet, is no Mont Blanc. But it’s the highest spot in the Everglades watershed.

More than a million years ago, this long spine of high ground was the only thing above the sea here. That made it a sort of mini-Galapagos, where a rare suite of plants and wildlife found nowhere else, including the Florida scrub jay, evolved in the oak scrub as the waters receded and Florida emerged.
Lake Wales Ridge is an important recharge area for the water that feeds into the Everglades. And the roughly 68,000-acre Blue Head Ranch is one of several big pieces of land being protected and linked across the greater Everglades.

No factor drives what happens in the southern Everglades as much as the massive amount of water that comes rushing in from the upper half of the watershed. For decades, these water flows have been treated solely as a problem—especially given the region’s threat of hurricanes and heavy storms—that needed to be engineered into submission.

To illustrate the point, Jeff Danter picks up a pen and draws a circle on a piece of paper: This represents Lake Okeechobee, he says. The lake was drastically altered by the construction of a series of giant berms and dikes in the 1930s, after 2,000 people lost their lives in a hurricane that flooded the region. The idea, Danter says, was to contain the water to keep South Florida’s cities and farms from being inundated again.

Next Danter draws a giant arrow pointing straight at the lake. This, he says, represents all the water that flows into the lake from the north. “From an engineering perspective,” he says, tapping the arrow, “they just see this as an input.”

When Lake Okeechobee fills, however, the water must then be flushed out to Florida’s two coasts through canals. Those blasts of fresh water have devastating effects on aquatic life in the saltwater estuaries along the coast. And that, Danter says, is what the Conservancy is working to change: “We’re saying, ‘No, this isn’t just an arrow—this is actually an ecosystem.’”

Managing the northern Everglades as an ecosystem rather than a canal would have big benefits downstream, especially for the beleaguered river of grass. But reviving the region’s ecology and restoring old water flows are a huge undertaking.

Before the housing meltdown, the savannas were being hemmed in by instant-bake subdivisions and box stores. But a bigger threat was the extensive web of drainage ditches that ranchers had built across most of central Florida’s savannas in an effort to increase the amount of pastureland. The ditches help water run off quickly, but they have drained much of the native wetland habitat and reduced the land’s ability to absorb, store and then slowly release the deluges of summer rainwater.

Just outside Orlando is the Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, which was created to make up for wetlands that were filled in and dried out when a Disney housing development was built and the Orlando airport was expanded. In the 1990s, the Conservancy began testing strategies for restoring natural hydrology here, using backhoes to plug ditches so that the wetlands could rehydrate in the rainy season. Now, instead of rushing down the ditches and onward into Lake Okeechobee, water lazily migrates through the landscape.

That’s far different from a traditional, engineering-intensive approach to managing water, but it pays an important dividend. “This ‘dispersed storage’—plugging ditches and rehydrating historic wetlands—not only is much less expensive, it holds the water on the land in a historic way,” says Richard Hilsenbeck, who directs Conservancy projects in Florida. “That’s better for the ecology and for wildlife.”
Those kinds of successes have drawn in another important player in the conservation world: the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has committed $89 million to place conservation easements on ranches as part of its Wetlands Reserve Program. Last year, for instance, the owners of Blue Head Ranch and four other contiguous ranches agreed to place conservation easements on the portions of Fisheating Creek that flow through their properties. Today, the creek is straitjacketed by levees. But over the next two years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service will return the creek to its natural channel and restore a nearly 5,000-acre marsh that will be able to hold 6 billion gallons of water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set up shop in a big way, as well. Two years ago, representatives from the agency met with Keith Fountain and Dave Houghton of the National Wildlife Refuge Association beneath a huge oak draped in Spanish moss on the Hatchineha Ranch, another property that the Conservancy is working to restore. The conversation turned to the broader Everglades ecosystem. Charlie Pelizza, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, remembers raising concerns about piecemeal efforts to address the problems facing the Everglades—from water availability to the loss of wildlife habitat to the high pollution loads that drain in from the north.

“If we’re serious about this, we need to be thinking in a bigger landscape,” Pelizza said to the group. “If we’re going to do anything for the Everglades itself—the river of grass—we have to improve the water quality that’s entering Lake Okeechobee. And in order to do that, you have to start at the headwaters.”

In the heat of the moment, Pelizza found himself proposing that the agency consider creating a new wildlife refuge that would link critical lands in central Florida. “That conversation under the tree is where it clicked,” he says. And, he adds, it’s also when the scope of the undertaking became clear. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Did we really just decide to do this?’”

Last January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally announced the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans for the new refuge and conservation area. It could cover nearly 150,000 acres, complementing the 680,000 acres already protected by the Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other entities. The Interior Department is beginning to gather public input on the plan and intends to release a formal proposal by the end of this year.

For Danter, such progress is a great example of the energy behind America’s Great Outdoors Initiative—a new federal program to protect large landscapes and working lands. “When we go in and start talking about the projects at the size we’re talking about, they’re not put off by that,” says Danter. “They’re really excited about it.”
Multiplied across all of central Florida, small increases in the landscape’s water storage capacity can bring big results. “You may only be adding a foot or two of water to any one place,” says the Conservancy’s Shaw, “but if you add that up over tens of thousands of acres, you’re starting to hold back a serious amount of water upstream.”

Each restoration success here has helped shift the prevailing wisdom inside the South Florida Water Management District, which has long been responsible for ensuring water supplies for a total of 7.5 million people in cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and for making sure those cities aren’t wiped out by floods. The agency is also one of the main participants in the effort to restore the Everglades, and it has become a proponent of working in the northern Everglades.

“This initiative is critically important, because it’s the headwaters of the entire Everglades ecosystem,” says Carol Wehle, the executive director of the water management district. “And you need to get all parts of the system right if you’re going to restore the Everglades.”

The focus is shifting to less engineering-intensive fixes, such as increasing the water-holding capacity of the land through wetlands restoration. “When the Everglades restoration was originally conceived, it was very engineered,” says Wehle. “As we have 10 good years of experience under our belt, we’re realizing the need to couple engineered systems with more natural types of projects.”

Wehle is careful to point out that natural, “dispersed” options won’t be sufficient to meet the entire demand for water storage. The water management district needs to add somewhere around a million more acre-feet—326 billion gallons—of storage north of Lake Okeechobee. “This will be a major percentage,” says Wehle, “but it won’t be the entire solution.”

Still, every additional effort to restore and protect more of the northern Everglades will help boost habitat. “Acreage is important in this landscape,” says Shaw. “We measure the [ecological] productivity of this kind of ecosystem by how many acres we’ve got.”

Practically everyone involved in the northern Everglades restoration effort concedes that these days the trickiest part of the entire equation is money. After years of fits and starts, the Conservancy began to build momentum for land protection and restoration only when the economic downturn—and the burnout of Florida’s incandescent housing market—made conservation easements more attractive to ranchers than development deals were.

Yet today, despite hopeful signs like the nearly $100 million in Department of Agriculture funding in 2010 alone, money for land protection is scarce. This has led to a sort of jigsaw assemblage of projects funded from various sources—where, for instance, easements and acquisitions financed by the Conservancy and wetland mitigation-banking deals with federal agencies could be folded into the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new national wildlife refuge and conservation area.

For Pelizza, the Fish and Wildlife Service manager, this is a new era of creative deal making and conservation pragmatism, in which a refuge to protect wildlife habitat can do double duty as water-supply project. “It really doesn’t matter who’s got the sign around the outside of it,” he says. “The property’s still being protected.”

June 2011

wild florida panther 60x60 The 4-million-acre northern Everglades system is a mosaic of waterways, wildlife corridors and working cattle ranches.

"This initiative is critically important, because it’s the headwaters of the entire Everglades ecosystem. And you need to get all parts of the system right if you’re going to restore the Everglades."

Water district director Carol Wehle