A Natural Alliance

Buck Island Ranch is home to the threatened caracara, and it's a laboratory where ranchers and conservationists are learning to work together

Despite such grandstanding the cowboys and researchers at Buck Island have reached a truce, going about their respective businesses with a wave to workers from the other division. Ranch hands put up the fences around experimental pastures and build the birdcages used by McMillian and visiting ornithologists. Steve McGehee, a research biologist with the University of Florida, has been studying the crested caracara on and around Buck Island for six years. While he acknowledges that some of the cowboys may consider his work silly, he has found them to be curious and considerate, rerouting herds to avoid scaring off birds he was observing. Dozens of ranchers from the region have cooperated with the caracara research, surprising McGehee. "I thought they'd be hostile to the work we were doing and think that it would shut them down."

Fear and mistrust of conservationists hovers over a Hendry County auditorium where 18 landowners have gathered to discuss the possibility of negotiating with their erstwhile enemies. Seated at long tables, they review a proposed outline for resource conservation agreements in which federal, state, or local government agencies would compensate landowners for maintaining natural ecosystems and habitats for threatened or endangered species. The innovative concept, developed by the Florida Stewardship Foundation, a Boca Raton-based nonprofit organization, is predicated on a tenuous consensus of more than 100 environmental, agricultural, and cattlemen's groups, and private landowners and government agencies. If authorized by pending legislation, the contracts would span a minimum of 20 years and include federal tax incentives or annual payments of $10 to $20 per acre for designated wildlife habitats, wetlands, or natural ecosystems.

In essence the agreements are designed to replace the "stick" of regulation with the "carrot" of incentives, explains Craig Evans, president of the Florida Stewardship Foundation. (In a 1997 study, Evans found that an agricultural operation in Hillsborough County could have to comply with the rules and regulations of 46 different government agencies, from Hillsborough County Planning and Development Management to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.) While it's human nature to rebel against punishment and clamor for reward, government agencies have meted out more penalties than praise to private landowners in the past. Their measures to protect wildlife have agitated the agricultural community, and even resulted in exactly what they were trying to prevent -- the destruction of habitat.

"If you have endangered species now, you're screwed," says Evans, lowering his voice to a stage whisper. "It's shoot, shovel, and shut up. There's a huge incentive to try to get rid of it quietly."

A few years ago, a citrus grower cleared about 450 acres of scrub oak habitat near Archbold Biological Station that was occupied by as many as 80 threatened Florida scrub jays. In 1997 he was sentenced to six months probation and $35,000 in fines and restitution for violating the Endangered Species Act. Such incidents only intensify ranchers' worries of being hamstrung by the discovery of listed species on their properties. As landowners at the Florida Stewardship Foundation meeting debate the importance of progress reports that could modify the management of property under a conservation agreement, one impatient landowner queries, "When are we going to get to the endangered species?"

Several landowners are adamant that the resource conservation agreements not include any inventory or population count of listed species, the presence and numbers of which could change according to season, migratory patterns, or other factors beyond their control. "If we used to have a lot of burrowing owls and now we don't, am I accountable for that?" asks Pat Pfeil, assistant manager of Carlton Bar A Ranches and Groves in Arcadia. "I mean, I didn't go out and kill the things."

Evans, ever the conciliator, points out that a government agency such as the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service would insist on knowing what species are on a property to justify the expense of an agreement. Still, he amends the outline to stipulate that they are not responsible for the health or number of the species, only for the habitat.

The estimation that only 30 to 50 adult Florida panthers remain in the wild and that at least half of the nearly 5000 square miles in South Florida that support those survivors is privately owned inspired the concept of partnerships with landowners. In 1994 the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission and the American Farmland Trust, for which Evans was a consultant, began developing a strategy to protect panther habitat on private lands. Evans recalls a dispute at the first of many workshops with conservationists and private landowners. An environmentalist stood up and declared that protecting the panther was more important than property rights. One of the landowners rose to protest. "Hey, just a minute..."

Discussions with ranchers and farmers revealed the link between habitat loss and estate taxes. When landowners die they bequeath a hefty financial burden to their children. The value of the land typically trumps the income from agriculture, with Florida farmland currently worth, on average, $2241 per acre. Estate taxes as high as 55 percent can plunge heirs into multimillion-dollar debt. Without the cash to pay the tax collector, heirs often have to sell off small parcels of land, chipping away at the property until it becomes what the cowboys at Buck Island call a "ranchette."

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