By Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to survey the northern Everglades, a vast watershed of incredible beauty. USDA prides itself on protecting natural resources across our nation and the Fisheating Creek Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) project offers us another opportunity to do just that.
Fisheating Creek is located in Highland County, part of the Northern Everglades Watershed. This watershed flows southeast into Lake Okeechobee, which in turn, flows into the Everglades.
As the helicopter hovered over the Fisheating Creek WRP project, I thought about the commitment and dedication to Florida and its natural resources that the ranch families are making. They are taking proactive steps to be part of the long term solution to wetland restoration and water quality improvement in this critical watershed. These ranch families have agreed to place permanent easements on five tracts of adjoining land that total almost 26,000 acres.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is ready to do its part to help private landowners to restore, protect and enhance wetlands and improve water quality in exchange for retiring eligible land from agriculture.
The five properties owned by the four landowners are part of a landscape that supports more than 19 federally endangered and threatened species, including the crested caracara, bald eagle, Florida panther and the red-cockaded woodpecker.
The willingness of these farm and ranch families to enroll their acreage into WRP makes this project one of the largest contiguous easement acquisitions in the program’s history. Wayne Goodwin, Farmer Manager at Westby Farms highlighted the memories and personal connection that the families have to the land and how this is one way of preserving those connections for generations to come.
USDA has been, and will continue to be, a major player in restoring one of America’s treasures–the Everglades. I feel a sense of deep pride that USDA can make a difference in this historic and unique ecosystem.