KISSIMMEE, Fla. — As part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today formally proposed the establishment of a new national wildlife refuge and conservation area in the Kissimmee River Valley, south of Orlando, Fla., to preserve one of the last remaining grassland and longleaf pine savanna landscapes in eastern North America.
Building on the conservation work of private landowners, state and federal conservation agencies, conservation groups, and the public, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal is a strong example of how conservation partners are working to preserve the area’s rich ranching heritage and way of life, while protecting the headwaters of the Everglades in the Kissimmee River Basin and connecting valuable habitats benefiting the area’s rich fish and wildlife resources.
“We established the America’s Great Outdoors initiative to help support the efforts of local communities, private landowners and other key stakeholders to protect working lands and signature landscapes like the northern Everglades,” Secretary Salazar said. “This initiative honors the stewardship of generations of Florida cattle ranchers and other landowners who understood that we all have a stake in preserving the health of our land, water, and wildlife. This proposal, which will continue to be shaped by the local communities and landowners, will help protect both the ranching traditions in the area and the wildlife that call this area home. The establishment of this refuge promotes one of our key Everglades restoration goals, which is to restore habitat and protect species.”
Two-thirds of the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, or up to 100,000 acres, would be protected through conservation easements purchased from willing sellers. Private landowners would retain ownership of their land, as well as the right to work the land to raise cattle or crops. The easements would ensure the land could not be developed.
The Service would also purchase up to 50,000 acres outright from willing sellers to create the proposed national wildlife refuge where visitors could hunt, fish, hike and view wildlife. The Service has identified six areas where these refuge lands could potentially be purchased. In some cases, the refuge acquisitions would augment existing conservation lands, such as state parks and wildlife management areas.
Today’s announcement builds on several other key conservation priorities championed by Secretary Salazar as part of the America’s Great Outdoor initiative and developed with the input of private landowners, conservation stakeholders, and state, local and tribal elected officials, including:
•The proposed Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, which will conserve prairie landscapes, wildlife resources and working lands in the Prairie Pothole Region, an area that supports more than half of the nation’s migratory waterfowl
•The successful community-based conservation initiatives taking place in the Crown of the Continent, a vast and intact landscape that includes portions of northwestern Montana as well as British Columbia and Alberta and
•The 1-million-acre Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in Kansas – the first new unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System authorized under the Obama administration.
A preliminary proposal for the project was first announced in January 2011. By the end of March, the Service had held four public meetings and received more than 38,000 comments. The public input was used to refine the proposal.
Details of the proposal, including maps, are in a Draft Land Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment that can be viewed at: http://www.fws.gov/southeast/evergladesheadwaters.
During the six-week public review and comment period that ends Oct. 24, 2011, the Service will host two additional public meetings to answer questions and gather comments. The first hour of each meeting will be in an informal open-house format, during which the Service and its partners will present information and answer questions. Following that, the session will be in a formal public hearing format. Speakers will sign up to speak and will be given a specified time limit in which to offer comments.
The public meetings are scheduled for:
•1 – 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011
South Florida Community College Theater for the Performing Arts
600 W. College Drive
Avon Park, FL 33825
•1 – 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011
Osceola Heritage Park
The Exhibition Building – Hall A
1901 Chief Osceola Trail
Kissimmee, FL 34744
Comments may also be submitted in writing to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Proposed Everglades Headwaters NWR and Conservation Area:
By email to EvergladesHeadwatersProposal@fws.gov
By mail to P.O. Box 2683, Titusville, FL 32781-2683
By fax to 321-861-1276.
Time permitting, the Service is also planning to consider requests from organizations for informational presentations held in the local area during the public review and comment period. During these sessions, the Service would be able to share information about the proposed refuge and conservation area, but would be unable to accept verbal public comments at these meetings. However, written comments could be submitted to the Service representative.