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Conservationists urge land purchases

By Staff | Mar 6, 2015

Representatives from the area’s conservation organizations held signs and spoke of the importance of stopping the discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River, which they said is killing the estuary.

The only way that will happen, they say, is to make sure the water flow goes south into the Everglades, as it did all throughout history before the natural flow was diverted by development and agricultural interests.

That is why they all gathered at the boat dock at Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers on Wednesday, urging the state legislature at a news conference to purchase Everglades Agriculture Area lands.

Among those attending was County Commissioner Frank Mann, a lifelong resident and strong environmental proponent, who said it’s an issue that always seems to get close to having something done but never happens.

“I was born here and learned to swim and waterski in this river when it was natural,” Mann said. “In the last 100 years, we have made a serious effort to mess it up.”

Mann said in the last century, U.S. policy was to dig out the lake and farm it out to get the water into the Gulf or the Atlantic. Mann said it was only later did they learn what a far-reaching policy it was.

“It devastated the most precious ecosystem, the Everglades. There was no greater collection of God’s critters, and we were done raping the land, we had destroyed a good amount of the Everglades,” Mann said.

It also meant high flows for rivers to the east (the St. Lucie River) and west of the lake, which damaged the estuaries and eliminated classes of fish and invertebrates by impacting the food chain by bringing fresh water into salt-water habitats as well as nitrogen and phosphorus.

The groups say this is an historic opportunity to buy the land while prices are still low. The option is for the state to pay $7,400 per acre or fair market value for the 46,800 acres in the EAA, the funding for which is available thanks to Amendment 1.

The estimates are $350 million to buy all the land, but with Amendment 1 expected to generate $650 million annually, as well as other funding possibilities, the land is affordable, according to Jennifer Hecker, of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

“The solution is in our hands. The opportunity is for the legislature to appropriate the funds before May, when the session ends,” said Rae anne Wessel of the Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation. “This is the only solution for high flows that are catastrophic to our rivers, estuary and gulf ecosystem.”

The state has until Oct. 12 to buy the property, or else there is no assurance it will have another opportunity, at least at low prices, since the groups claim the area is being looked at for mining and residential development.

Many are confident the stars have aligned, as the importance of conservation has rung throughout the legislature, conservationists, and the voters.

“Citizens are angry. They are tired of waiting. The purchase of this land is needed immediately. The problem is that Governor Scott and his appointees are dragging their feet,” said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. “Much to the chagrin of those who depends on the water.”

Hecker said there is no other option to solve this problem.

“These lands have been identified as necessary for Everglades restoration and diverting the high flows. We know what needs to be done and have never had the opportunity like now,” Hecker said. “If we pass this up, we may never have this opportunity again.”