PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Panthers and bats and bears: Florida's endangered species have even more room to roam

Working farms featuring hay barns and horse stalls can be found along the Florida Wildlife Corridor
Florida Department of Agriculture
Working farms featuring hay barns and horse stalls can be found along the Florida Wildlife Corridor

Florida residents now own the right to decide whether more than 5,000 acres of farmland in Charlotte, Hardee, and Highlands counties will ever be developed with homes and strip malls even though the land remains in private hands.

The acreage is now part of the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which is one of a medley of protected parks, preserves, and privately-owned land encompassing millions of acres throughout the Sunshine State.

“By partnering with willing farmers to preserve working agricultural lands from development, we can protect their immense economic and environmental benefits while being good stewards of our tax dollars,” Aaron Keller, spokesman for Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, said to the News Service of Florida.

The conservation easements are part of 18,279 acres also in DeSoto, Hendry, Polk, Walton, and St. Lucie counties purchased by taxpayers for $57.6 million earlier this year.

The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program is a $300 million-a-year effort to protect as much land as possible for endangered species including the Florida panther, Florida bonneted bat, and Florida black bear as well as the greater good of the environment itself.

The rural lands program has protected more than 75,000 acres of farmland and open space throughout the state from commercial or residential development.

Some of the property overlaps with the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which includes 120,000 acres so far but aims to connect 18 million acres for wildlife and the public from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle.

The 5,000 acres in Charlotte, Hardee, and Highlands counties include 643 acres at Sandy Gully, which is near the Highlands Hammock State Park and west of Sebring. On the western slope of the Lake Wales Ridge, the land provides habitat to native and rare species including the Florida black bear, Florida panther, and Sherman’s fox squirrel.

Sandy Gully will remain a working ranch.

More than 2,840 acres of farmland at Ryals Citrus and Cattle in Charlotte County have been acquired as well.

The large parcel is an important wildlife and habitat connector between Babcock Ranch and the Myakka River State Park.

More than 1,025 acres at Charlie Creek Cattle in Hardee County is another new parcel in the program.

Charlie Creek is a tributary of the Peace River and is a mix of pasture, wetlands, open marsh, and bottomland hardwoods.

The 90-year-old ranch is already part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and will remain a working cattle operation.

Research shows that the Florida Wildlife Corridor not only provides inherent scientific, recreational, and cultural value but also supports at least 114,000 jobs and $30 billion in recreation, tourism, and agriculture including ranching and forestry.

Three major Department of Defense commands, and several military bases, are in or near the wildlife corridor so the open spaces are also considered vital to national security.

The corridor is also home to other endangered and threatened species including the black bear, red-cockaded woodpecker, and the American crocodile.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, has championed the corridor. She told the News Service of Florida she’s dubbed the project Florida’s “Central Park.”

About 8 million acres need to be secured, with a goal of adding 900,000 acres by the end of the decade. Much of the conservation land is adjacent to or helps fill in gaps between, other existing local, state, and federal preserves.

The conservation easements allow the current landowners to continue active hunting, farming, and cattle operations in exchange for never allowing residential and commercial development.

Land now protected from development as part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor
Florida Department of Agriculture
Land now protected from development as part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor

The Florida Wildlife Corridor was launched in 2010 by Carlton Ward Jr., Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, Joe Guthrie, and Elam Stoltzfus, who undertook a 100-day expedition on foot, kayak, and bike through 1,000 miles of Florida's wilderness.

Florida taxpayers continually reaffirm preserving open land is how they want some of their tax dollars spent — even to buy the development rights for just a single square mile of the Hendrie Ranch along the Lake Wales Ridge last year.

The farmer is continuing to raise cattle on the property.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

Copyright 2023 WGCU