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

The cowboys don't expect their children to continue the lifestyle they love. "I don't think it's a good idea for your kids to get interested in this, 'cause there's no future in it," says day-rider Myron Albritton, a somber tone replacing his usual swagger. "We are an endangered species," says Jerry Hunter. The Buck Island ranch hand widens his eyes as if telling a ghost story and continues, "We might be able to move to a different state, but not here. There'll be no land left. The land's worth too much."

One-fifth of the 34.5 million acres in Florida that are not underwater have been converted to urban uses. The state's population just topped 15 million, and each day nets an average of 800 new residents. Faced with the prospect of endless development, state and county governments have been buying up large tracts of agriculture and forestry lands deemed crucial to conserving biodiversity. In 1990 the Florida legislature enacted Preservation 2000 to raise nearly $3 billion for the state's land-acquisition programs. More than one million acres have been purchased with Preservation 2000 funds so far, and an extension of the program under the updated name Forever Florida is on the legislative agenda this season, with a proposed amendment allowing for some of the funds to be spent on conservation agreements.

A recent state house resolution supporting the work of the Florida Stewardship Foundation declares, "The state cannot afford to buy or manage every tract of land that contributes to its environmental welfare, nor can it hope to outlaw all destructive uses of these lands without further limiting the lawful uses of private property and placing unfair burdens on private property owners."

Even as conservationists and ranchers find empathy for and understanding of each other's concerns, some opposition and suspicion linger. Habitat management and water storage are valuable to the public, and the public needs to pay for them, contends Frank "Sonny" Williamson, a third-generation cattle rancher in Okeechobee County. "It's easy for some people to say you should keep your land in wildlife habitat, but they don't own the land," he says. "That would be a huge gift from the landowner to the public."

Williamson's trenchant statement belies his actions. The former chairman of the board of the South Florida Water Management District irrigates his land with treated reuse water and maintains fences around his drainage ditches to keep the cows from grazing in them, thus minimizing his contribution to nutrient excess in the watershed.

His conservation efforts have won the respect and friendship of Richard L. Coleman of the Sierra Club, who initially counted Williamson among his enemies on water quality issues. "You do battle, and then you come out realizing that someone who may oppose you vehemently is just as honest and sincere as you are," says Coleman, a tinge of surprise still coloring his voice. It becomes more impassioned as he lauds ranchers for respecting both the habitat and the sanctity of wildlife, qualities that public access can disrupt.

Yet Coleman also sees another side to some ranchers, whom he describes as often "lock stepped with developers," wanting to have their cake -- the tax breaks or fees promised in a resource conservation agreement -- and eat it too when a sweet development deal comes along. This mistrust of ranchers colors his reception of the Florida Stewardship Foundation's conservation agreements. He prophesies conflicts between the management goals of agricultural and governmental interests and betrayals by landowners or their descendants. The only way to ensure perpetual habitat conservation is to buy the land outright, Coleman concludes.

Some landowners vow never to sell their land or development rights but might consider a 20-year resource conservation agreement, says Evans. He insists the Florida Stewardship Foundation's plan is meant to supplement, not replace, existing programs.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has already begun several incentive programs, including 75 percent cost-sharing for improvements on private property to attract wildlife. For instance, a rancher who wanted more deer and turkey on his land could plant white clover in improved pastures interspersed with woodlands or rangelands. The agency is considering adopting resource conservation agreements, distinct in that they are preventative, rewarding landowners for beneficial practices already in place. Evans is also working on federal legislation, which may be introduced during this session, to authorize the use of resource conservation agreements nationwide.

The Florida Stewardship Foundation has enlisted ranchers to plead their own case in a short video shot mostly by Jeff Palmer and titled "Private Lands: Partners in Conserving America's Resources." One rancher navigates a swamp and talks of treading lightly on the land; another rides past grazing cattle and promotes his planting of legumes and clover to attract more wildlife. Buck Island's spokesperson has a British accent and academic tone. Hilary Swain, executive director of Archbold Biological Station, skirts tall grasses, binoculars slung across her green T-shirt. "On this unique cattle ranch," the narrator intones, "scientists are learning how ranchers and conservationists can work together to protect what's left of Florida's wild heritage."

Swain stops, scans the landscape, and launches into several examples of the compatibility of ranching and wildlife. Cut to a crested caracara, framed by palm fingers, its snowy neck ringed with striped feathers. A researcher prods the frond with a pole, shaking down a fledling caracara on the verge of leaving the nest. An assistant chases the startled offspring with a fishing net so the team can tag it with a radio transmitter to track its movements. Swain in voice-over describes the caracara's dependence on private ranches for breeding and feeding, then the prevalence of threatened and endangered wading birds, shown poking around in a shallow pool of water.

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