Writer and filmmaker Bill Belleville has made a career out of water. From the Dutch Antilles to Russia’s White Sea, Belleville has paddled and scuba dived places most people only dream about. But close to his Florida home, the sight of the partially restored Kissimmee River, channelized concrete on one side, green meandering stream on the other, was as memorable as anything he’d ever seen.
“I went up there and paddled,” Belleville says. “We could see the canal on one hand, and in the other direction was the river, and it was all the difference in the world.”
The partially restored Kissimmee River is a stark symbol of the choices facing Floridians. Black-necked stilts, storks, herons, cranes and spoon- bills have returned to the 43 miles of restored river, 320 species in all. But the Kissimmee is only part of the giant plumbing system that filters water to the Florida Everglades. In this ever-growing state, high demand for developable land means that full-scale restoration isn’t always possible. In some parts of Florida, putting the pieces together requires mimicking natural systems instead of restoring them.
Like California, Florida built its economy on the control of water. Historically, the Kissimmee River drained to Lake Okeechobee, which seasonally overflowed its banks, sending sheet flows south to the Everglades and west to the Gulf of Mexico. But over the last century, channels and levees drained 50 percent of the state’s wetlands, al- lowing them to be converted to sugar farms south of the lake and cattle ranches to the north. Big sugar is the most pressing problem: nutrients, notably phosphorus, threaten to convert the famous Everglades “river of grass” from sawgrass to cattails. But draining land for ranches north of Okeechobee also disrupted the natural hydrology.
Now the state is trying to reverse more than a century of environmental damage. While there has been only halting progress on ambitious deals to purchase land from the state’s two major sugar growers, former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who once promised to be “the Everglades governor” is planning to run for office again and finish the job. In the meantime, state agencies have worked with Big Sugar to institute farming practices that minimize nutrient pollution.
Cattle ranches in north Florida are another story. Many ranchers are struggling economically, and, as the housing market improves, developers are eyeing vast tracts of agricultural land in the Kissimmee Basin. Outright purchase of the land surrounding the Kissimmee River may solve part of the problem, but probably won’t be sweeping or rapid enough to save the region. In early 2012, the Department of Interior established an Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in the Kissimmee Basin with an initial donation of 10 acres. That may sound tiny, but eventually, the headwaters protected area is projected to include 150,000 acres, including 100,000 acres of ranchland protected by easements.
The Interior Department’s plan is a tacit recognition that outright purchase of large tracts of ranch land doesn’t seem possible, politically or economically. Instead, the race is on to persuade ranchers to sell conservation easements, which means their land can become part of the headwaters protected area, as well as to restore wetlands on their property. Bill Belleville calls restoration “a work in progress.” One of Belleville’s recent films was a profile of Carey Lightsey, a rancher whose family’s holdings include 36,200 acres in Florida and Georgia.
Nearly a decade ago, Lightsey, who not only breeds cattle but also runs hunting trips on his land (Johnny Depp was one of his clients) became one of the first of the region’s landowners to protect his ranch through conservation easements.
As many have noted, Lightsey, who has won many awards for his work, sold development rights to his land when real estate values in Florida were sky high.
“I can’t understand why more ranchers don’t do this,” Lightsey says. “You have to focus on the big picture. You can’t think the whole thing is about money.”
But setting up conservation easements to fend off development is not enough. Many ranchers are working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to do low-tech restoration work: digging ditches and building weirs to trap water. These simple measures create wildlife habitat and have the additional benefit of recharging groundwater.
In these days of scarce government funding, the farm bill has proved essential to Florida’s conservation efforts. Jenny Conner-Nelms, the government relations director for the Florida Nature Conservancy, has been instrumental in developing the strategy of funding restoration through the farm bill’s wetland reserve program, which has yielded $269 million to protect 50,000 acres in conservation easements in northern Florida.
“We have been extremely fortunate,” says Conner-Nelms. “Many people don’t realize that the farm bill is the largest amount of money from the federal government for the environment.”
When it comes to persuading ranchers to participate, it helps that the actual restoration is a fairly low-tech affair that doesn’t require major changes in agricultural practices, according to Greg Knecht, Director of Protection at the Na- ture Conservancy’s Tallahassee office. Initially, Knecht says, some ranchers were dubious. But as pastures became healthier and the water table rose, the program has gained adherents.
“The farmers are frustrated sometimes,” says Knecht. “It’s a case of ‘first you told us to drain it, now you’re telling us to fill it in?‘ But the reality is that water is going to drive the future of everything that happens in Florida.”