Attracting more than 46 million visitors worldwide, America’s national wildlife refuges enhance local economies across the country, generating $2.4 billion per year and supporting more than 35,000 jobs. More than 560 wildlife refuges comprise the National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which spans 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters. Much of Southwest Florida is currently under consideration for inclusion to the system as a Wildlife Conservation Area (WCA) thanks to its ecological importance, decades of previously documented conservation science and planning in the area, and its track-record of responsive, engaged, community stakeholders. The potential WCA would protect important habitats home to an estimated 74 threatened and endangered species within the western Everglades, Caloosahatchee River, Fisheating Creek, Peace River, and Myakka River watersheds.
How did this come about? A 2022 Landscape Conservation Design (LCD), or scientific analysis, set the stage for this project by justifying a closer look at Southwest Florida as a WCA priority. LCDs inform regional landscape-scale conservation and land use planning decisions by assessing biodiversity and ecosystem services, and stakeholder engagement and outreach to determine priority strategies and actions. Using existing statewide and new regional data, they aim to identify the most critical places for conserving native wildlife and habitats with high restoration potential.
LCDs also identify ecologically connected networks of conservation areas and those most likely to be resilient to climate change. They determine which conservation actions are needed and who can contribute to those actions. An LCD functions as both a product that assists with landscape-scale conservation prioritization and documents the various strategies of management partners as well as an adaptive process. The process portion involves continual collaboration and adaptation based on emerging science, changing climate conditions, and the capabilities of project partners. Thus, an LCD requires ongoing modification by all partners based on the results of collective implementation actions, monitoring, and evaluation.
The area under consideration in Southwest Florida, like many parts of Florida, is undergoing rapid development. These changes in land use threaten its ecological integrity. Climate change impacts are also weighing on natural systems, affecting habitats, water quality, and aquifer recharge. Designating this area for protection offers an exceptional opportunity to conserve and restore critical resources at the landscape level, providing a holistic, long-term solution to maintaining the health of the region’s waters and wildlife.
Lands proposed for protection also support ecological connections that serve as wildlife corridors. The linkage between the Big Cypress National Preserve and Okaloacoochee Slough for example, offers a rare opportunity to expand essential habitat for the endangered Florida panther, and securing mangrove habitat on the Caloosahatchee is instrumental to the continued survival of the lesser known, but still important Smalltooth Sawfish, also unique to Southwest Florida. Preserving lands within the proposed WCA boundaries secures a brighter future for dozens of other wildlife species – notably the Florida burrowing owl, gopher tortoise, woodstork, Everglades mink, bald eagle, snail kite, and the Florida black bear.
WCA designation protects lands through both acquisition and conservation easements – which place permanent restrictions on land use or development. Many Southwest Florida landowners appear eager to work with the Service on this goal and have already applied to be on the state’s list to be considered for conservation. As a “willing-seller” program, land protection requires collaboration with willing landowners, and does not infringe on property owner rights. Instead of “closing lands down, WCA designation generally increases access to outdoor recreational opportunities including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, and environmental education and interpretation, so long as the activities are deemed compatible with intended conservation goals.
Where Things Stand
Presently, the proposed WCA’s habitat value and restoration potential have met the requirements to move the project forward, and FWS has addressed potential issues and further analyzed wildlife use, current and past land use, land use threats, and impacts and benefits. Initial scoping and public meetings were conducted in March and April. Later this summer, FWS will issue a Draft Land Protection Plan and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document. The NEPA review requires identification and public disclosure of federal planning activities to ensure a thorough evaluation of the environmental, economic, and social effects of planned projects. The report analyzes wildlife protection needs, proposed alternative land protection strategies, and the effects of the proposed alternatives on the human environment. It also addresses compliance with other laws and regulations. Both documents will be open to a period of public review. FWS will review comments submitted and will respond to concerns before developing a Final Plan which they anticipate releasing in late 2023.
Economically speaking, this project complements the existing Florida Wildlife Corridor, so the proposed WCA could likely leverage State funds to support land acquisition. FWS addresses impacts on the tax base by annually reimbursing counties to compensate for lost revenue at either 75 cents per acre; three-fourths of one percent of the fair market value; or 25 percent of the net receipts collected from operation and management of refuge lands, whichever is greater. Also, Congress may appropriate additional funds to compensate local governments. Funding for these types of projects is not typically derived from traditional tax revenues. Instead, funds come from sales of Federal Duck Stamps, entrance fees from certain national wildlife refuges, import duties on arms and ammunition (from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund), and the sale of offshore oil leases (Land and Water Conservation Fund).
Moving forward with this project would secure a more resilient and sustainable future for the region, and we encourage Southwest Florida residents to voice support and stay engaged. Learn more about the SWFL Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area here, or request to be placed on the FWC mailing list that will provide information about opportunities to comment throughout the process and participate in public meetings.