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A Natural Alliance

A rustle in the brush and the faint flap of wings send Jeff Palmer's finger to the trigger. As his prey perches on a fallen tree trunk and begins to case the bait, Palmer fires a few shots through a gash in the green netting stretched across his camouflaged shack.

The former hunting guide grips the 300 millimeter lens that has replaced his rifle and focuses on the crested caracara, a raptor named for its black toupee and the high cackle that sounds like its Brazilian moniker. The bird cautiously steps up to the bait, which is roadkill planted the previous afternoon by Palmer, now a professional wildlife photographer. Using its talons for leverage, the caracara plucks bits of meat from the dead raccoon's ribs. With a stern gaze and imperious posture, the bird wards off the trio of black vultures lurking around its breakfast.

A wren warbles, a wild turkey chortles for a mate, bulls bellow. Cabbage palms tower over live oaks and sprout in clumps from the hammock floor. The pale glow of dawn burnishes the pastures that stream toward the horizon.

The grasslands that dominate Buck Island Ranch's 10,300 acres are crowned with tree clusters, pocked with 500 isolated wetlands, and intersected by the Harney Pond Canal and more than 400 miles of drainage ditches. White-tailed deer scamper past packs of cattle, and bobcats occasionally slink through the small citrus grove, lending a wild flavor to this ranching and agricultural landscape.

Dirt roads traverse the ranch and trail out to Route 70, where truckers hurtle across south-central Florida. The highway cuts through the heart of caracara habitat, mostly ranchlands north and west of Lake Okeechobee. The caracara's dwindling domain puts it in a precarious position, especially as cattle ranches are converted to other uses: Prairies are paved, cabbage palms -- in which caracaras craft nests from slender sticks entwined with vines -- are cut down and replaced by rows of sugar or citrus. Habitat destruction led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the Florida population of the crested caracara (also found in the southwestern United States and Central America) as threatened, or at risk of becoming endangered.

Caracaras, like all animals, are part of an intricate food chain. As upper-level predators, they help control the populations of smaller species such as the frogs and turtles that thrive in wetlands and man-made drainage ditches. On ranches like Buck Island, grazing and controlled burning keep the grasses short, enabling the two-foot-tall caracaras to glimpse mice and the insects that swarm around cow patties, as well as larger live prey and carrion like this morning's meal.

As more buzzards crowd around the raccoon carcass, the caracara spreads dark wings to twice its body length and alights across the range.

Palmer shrugs and relaxes his grip on his camera. It's barely 8 a.m. when he aborts his stakeout of the skittish bird, which he has seen fly off at the merest movement in the distance or, as may be the case now, when too much competition arrives.

Palmer first came to Buck Island Ranch to film the caracara in 1995 for a still-unfinished documentary and now views photographing the bird of prey as a lifetime project. White-tailed deer and wild turkey are his staple subjects for still photographs sent to magazines like Field & Stream, yet the crested caracara represents Palmer's passion. "I feel very strongly about the caracara because it is one of the first animals that researchers have openly told the public is thriving almost entirely on private lands," explains Palmer, eyes tinted teal against his tanned face. He has worked on private lands, in public parks, and at national wildlife preserves around the state but now takes all his wildlife photographs on ranches, where he claims to find larger populations of wild species. Palmer, who is quick to proclaim his aversion to cities, hopes his images will reveal ranchers' important role in nurturing wildlife.

Palmer's childhood playground was a 6000-acre ranch behind his Sarasota home, a heritage that has helped him establish a rapport with ranchers and gain access to a landscape largely off-limits to outsiders. "The rancher has always lived in the situation where 'you leave me alone and I'll leave you alone,'" says Palmer. "But that isn't going to happen anymore."

Cavoracious appetite for Florida real estate is pushing ranchers and conservationists together in the struggle to save natural resources. Every year a quarter-million acres are converted from ranching, agriculture, and forestry into urban uses, displacing plants and animals and impeding natural water flows with concrete surfaces. The amount of land in ranching alone has been halved over the last 40 years. Alarmed at the onslaught of development, environmental groups such as the Florida Audubon Society and government agencies like the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission recognize that cattle ranches now provide much of the habitat for wildlife.

Conservation groups traditionally have viewed ranchers as the culprits in environmental degradation. But reigning in ranchers with myriad regulations hasn't stemmed the loss of habitat, and in some cases has even contributed to the problem. Fearful, frustrated, or financially strapped ranchers ignored laws or left the business, selling their land to developers or farmers. Concluding that the hostile atmosphere has been unproductive, conservationists are seeking cattlemen's input -- even offering incentives -- in order to preserve biodiversity and stabilize the state's ecosystems. While still wary, ranchers are responding to these overtures by sharing knowledge gleaned from years of working the land. Their intuitive sense of how a working landscape -- and their meager profit margins -- would respond to environmental measures serves as a reality check for conservationists. Now innovative collaboration on wildlife and water-quality issues in Florida is helping to turn some former adversaries into allies.

Buck Island Ranch, a hybrid of conservation and agriculture, laboratory and business, serves as an incubator for the fledgling partnership. A commercial cattle ranch for more than 100 years, Buck Island was purchased by John D. MacArthur in 1968. The financier and Palm Beach developer spent weekends on the ranch and insisted that the cattle management not harm the environment. So it seems fitting that ten years ago, the philanthropic John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, formed after his death, leased the ranch to Archbold Biological Station, an independent research facility eight miles away, for 30 years at $1 per year.

Like most Florida ranches, Buck Island is a cow-calf operation, raising calves that are shipped out west to be fattened for slaughter on the corn this sandy soil can't support. The ranch has 2600 mother cows, 460 yearling or replacement cows (heifers), and about 150 bulls. The ranch manager and three full-time cowboys, with the help of temporary day-riders and two maintenance men, are currently tending 2000 calves that will be sold in August.

Bumping along a dirt road in a pickup truck, past cowboys driving cattle, research assistant Mike McMillian, one of three staff researchers at the ranch, recalls the laughter that greeted the announcement that Archbold would be taking over a cattle ranch and forming an agricultural division, MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center. Archbold's scientific staff members, who had been studying plants and animals on the 5000-acre natural preserve nearby, at first couldn't fathom what they would do with a working ranch.

Conservationists assumed that Archbold would remove the cattle and return the land to its native condition. Buck Island ranch hands were suspicious of the Archbold invaders' intentions, fearing radical changes.

Yet the new landlord was more interested in studying the effects of ranch management on the ecology of the area than in immediately altering it, with one major exception. To minimize flooding of the wetlands on which cattle graze, the ranch had been spraying its drainage ditches with a herbicide that decreased the amount of floating vegetation such as algae and water lettuce, which can clog up the culverts and hinder drainage. Archbold replaced the aerial spraying with a mechanical hoe that pulls out the plant growth, a process that is more environmentally sensitive but also more time-consuming and expensive.

The ditches support a variety of wildlife, particularly wading birds. When Archbold staff began exploring the ranch, McMillian was surprised at the diversity of the animals he observed during monthly surveys. To date, research assistants have recorded 156 species of birds, including the endangered wood stork, the threatened bald eagle, and the white ibis and snowy egret, both designated species of special concern by Florida Game and Fish because of their vulnerability to habitat modification or human disturbances. The less-comprehensive count of mammals ranges from opossum and armadillo to skunk and feral hog, with the occasional black bear and an unconfirmed Florida panther sighting.

In the afternoon shade of the oak arbor, McMillian rounds his mouth and sounds a startlingly owlish, gender-specific hoot. A male barred owl responds almost immediately, spreading its mottled feathers as it swoops down to snatch a squirming mouse from McMillian's palm, then caches it in a tree for later consumption. Treats aside, researchers have found that barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, and crested caracaras fare well on Buck Island and other ranches where they can nest in the hammocks and forage in the pastures and wetlands.

McMillian is also monitoring two roosts of adolescent caracaras, who have left the nest but have not paired off or established their own territories yet. He and other researchers hypothesize that the young birds may congregate as a sort of cooperative system in which they help each other find food. He counted 45 juvenile caracaras at one site in December, and another researcher has found adult caracara pairs breeding twice in one year, indicators of not just the success of the species but the health of their habitat.

Caracaras and other "listed" species -- those classified as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- are invaluable links in the food chain. Every species has its function, though it is not always clear how the disappearance of one species would affect the larger ecosystem. But conservationists say society should cherish each species for its intrinsic value and not wait until it has vanished to discover its importance. A healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem, with a mosaic of habitats and a range of inhabitants, as at Buck Island Ranch.

The dangers of broken links in the environmental food chain were unveiled in Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. Her requiem for American songbirds poisoned by pesticides galvanized the emerging environmentalist movement.

Four years later Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, followed in 1973 by the Endangered Species Act, a lightning rod for private landowners who claim it has limited their freedom to run their property as they see fit. The law regulates activities affecting listed plants and animals, of which Florida has more than any other state except Hawaii and California.

"It was in vogue to get the government to pass laws to protect things that man would otherwise destroy," remembers Duke Hammond, a wildlife biologist with Florida Game and Fish for 30 years. "And we developed laws with a passion."

If a rancher wants to dredge or fill wetlands, he must apply for a permit under the Clean Water Act and, if his action could alter the habitat enough to "take" a listed species, meaning to kill, injure, or hinder its ability to breed, feed, or find shelter, an Incidental Take Permit is required under the Endangered Species Act.

"Taking" a species without a permit can lead to fines, arrests, seizure of land or equipment, or costly remedies. In Okeechobee County, ranchers' efforts to block water from washing over their properties disrupted historic water flows on the National Audubon Society's neighboring Ordway-Whittell Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary. Flooding contributed to a drop in the sanctuary's population of the highly endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow -- a ground-nesting songbird named for the insectlike tone of its tune -- from sixteen breeding pairs in 1993 to only one today. Last summer a U.S. District Court ordered the 101 Ranch and the Tiger Cattle Company to install culverts to channel water away from the nesting sites.

Though such court battles are rare, legends loom large. Perception swamps case history: Landowners' fears of persecution and conservationists' suspicion of agricultural destruction may be exaggerated, but they have widened the divide between the two camps. The image of the rancher as the "black hat" -- the villain in an old Western -- persists in some environmentalist circles, says Hammond. Yet he and other biologists have noticed wildlife flocking to private ranchlands over public preserves.

"There's no question in my mind that I would rather have to show people endangered species on private lands. Because on private lands, I know we could find them," Hammond avows. "And on public lands, I'm not so sure."

Government does not invest enough in land management, federal and state wildlife biologists admit. Prescribed burning is an essential business practice for ranchers, who need it to regenerate the plants and nutrients in their pastures, making the grass healthier and more palatable to cattle and wildlife. By diminishing the natural tinder of dry and overgrown vegetation, controlled burning helps prevent wildfires, which can raze entire hammocks that provide shade and shelter for wildlife. But it is costly and can be unpopular with citizens who complain about the smoke and the potential spread of flames.

Many cattlemen call themselves "America's first environmentalists," saying they have taken care of the land for generations, managing it not just for their cattle but also for the wildlife and plant life some conservationists have only recently learned exists on private lands. Yet ranchers have had trouble making the case that they are sensitive environmentalists. The ranching community is now realizing it needs partnerships with conservationists doing scientific research like that at Buck Island Ranch to help them bolster their claims of responsible stewardship.

Archbold recently launched a long-range experiment at Buck Island Ranch that could have major consequences for the environment and ranching. The study is designed to measure the effects of various stocking rates (number of cows per acre) and pasture systems (some are "improved" with exotic grasses and fertilized often, while others remain closer to their native state) upon wildlife, cattle production, and surface water quality. When cattle excrete waste, they release phosphorus and nitrogen, which subsequently leach from the soil into the watershed, traveling through an extensive network of canals and levees to Lake Okeechobee, a critical Florida water source.

Concentrations of phosphorus in the lake water have doubled since the '70s, spawning noxious aquatic weeds. Opportunistic cattails grow so densely that they shut out the light needed for periphyton, a beneficial alga at the base of the food-chain ladder. This disruption climbs the rungs, from aquatic insects and bugs that graze on the periphyton, to fish like bass and speckled perch that eat the aquatic insects, and ultimately to a more noticeable reduction in wading birds such as wood storks and ibis.

The phosphorus loads entering Lake Okeechobee are 140 tons above target levels, although they have lessened since 1987 legislation that capped the concentration in the water coming off ranches at 35 milligrams of phosphorus per liter of water. But water management officials are hoping to meet their goals with incentives rather than more regulations. The South Florida Water Management District is beginning a new program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay private landowners to restore wetlands on their property and use them to retain water. Thirty ranches and farms have already volunteered, but the agencies probably only have the funding to start with ten and are still drafting the plans. The Water Management District's latest slogan is "We can't manage without you."

In 1994 the South Florida Water Management District formed a cooperative group with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center. The three organizations outlined a series of projects at Buck Island Ranch to explore the relationships between management practices, environmental issues, and the economics of beef cattle operations in Central Florida. Two years later the partnership expanded to include the Florida Cattlemen's Association. Representatives from the four organizations share research decisions and data, then disseminate the findings. Determining the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen coming from ranches and developing economical ways to lower those rates could encourage more collaboration between cattlemen and conservationists to improve the region's water resources.

Buck Island ranch manager Gene Lollis is convinced that the two groups will resolve their conflicts only with communication and calculations. "Until we have the numbers on a piece of paper that says 'This is what [the problem] is,' we're not going to change somebody's mind, because they always have that preconceived idea that we're doing terrible things as far as water quality is concerned," says Lollis, politely indignant, then repentant. "But on the flip side of that, if we are causing a problem, we want to know it so we can fix it."

In the living room of the red house that serves as the ranch office, the 30-year-old Lollis sits at a conference table. The walls are covered with topographical maps, drawings of cowboys, and a sign that proclaims, "Beef: Real Food For Real People." Stripped of his Stetson, spurs silent, he now appears slight, out of place. To learn the language of the scholarly types who visit the ranch, Lollis, who laces his mild twang with "Yes, ma'am," has been taking a course on food and the environment taught over the Internet by his alma mater, University of Florida. He studied animal science in the hope of becoming a veterinarian but returned to the work he began at age 14, toiling on ranches around St. Cloud to bankroll his rodeo dreams.

Now Lollis breeds bulls instead of riding them. But like most Florida ranches, Buck Island is barely eking a profit out of its cattle sales. For the last three years, its calves have fetched 50 to 55 cents per pound, at least a dime below breaking even. Declining beef consumption and increasing competition from Canadian and Mexican ranchers due to the North American Free Trade Agreement have contributed to the drop in calf prices from a national average of a dollar per pound in 1990.

The ranch supplements its cattle production with a 160-acre citrus grove, 200 acres of sod, and a group hunting lease signed by five members this year, each paying $3500 to take a maximum of four deer and a few wild hogs. These extra sources of income net enough money to pay the research budget of $100,000 to $150,000, which includes the three staff researchers' salaries and some equipment and expenses, supplemented by grants and visiting scientists. Staff biologists' awareness of the struggle behind their paychecks grounds the research in the financial reality of cattle ranching. Alternative management practices must be affordable for ranchers to comply and remain in business, and Lollis' accounting tests the effects of the research on ranch profits. Lollis acts as a liaison, shuttling between his colleagues in the office and his crew in the field, translating scientific data into ranch management.

Lollis aims to gain respect for ranchers by telling their story in terms both the policymakers and the public can comprehend. He is not satisfied merely showing Audubon and cattlemen's groups around Buck Island; he also wants to take the average urbanite on a tour of the ranch. "People come here and think it's a desolate wasteland: 'All they're concerned about is their cattle. They don't care about nothing else.' Well, that's not true," Lollis says, the perceived stereotype a personal affront. "Most cattlemen are stewards of the land. I enjoy taking my kids around and seeing deer and turkeys and water birds." His quiet pride is characteristic of "crackers," traditional Florida cowmen nicknamed for the cracking sound of the buckskin whips used by the Spaniards who introduced cattle to the peninsula -- and the future United States -- in 1521.

While Florida has changed dramatically over the years, a cracker's work has remained much the same. Up since dawn the Buck Island ranch hands spent the morning herding cattle into a pen for a veterinary checkup. The herd of cows and calves that were already examined is agitating for the open range, pushing up to the gate and mooing adamantly, waiting for the cowboys to rope a wayward calf. Finally Lollis lifts the chain, and horns and hides blur as they rush past. Ranch hands shepherd the stragglers with paternal regard, one dipping his horse into a ditch to help a calf out of the shallow water.

Abstract concepts have little place in their routine. While the cowboys grudgingly admit the results of some experiments at the ranch could prove helpful, they are skeptical of conservationists. They bristle at receiving orders from government agencies, which in their view consist of pale men in suits who regulate ranches from air-conditioned cubicles. If one of these officials even visited Buck Island, he would surely wither "like a vampire in the sun," mocks one ranch hand, a white cowboy hat barely shading his ruddy face.

While they complain about regulators and conservationists who don't know what their life is like, the cowboys' sardonic comments about researchers, played to impress their peers, reveal the limitations of their own understanding. "They're doing an experiment on the water, and they're doing an experiment on the grass," jibes Boo Addison, a recent addition to the ranch staff. Resting callused hands on his saddle horn, Addison elaborates. "They take a piece of grass and put a fence around it, and they watch it." Laughter rumbles across the row of mounted men.

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."

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.

The potential fate of many ranch land habitats is encapsulated by a "for sale" sign posted on a ranch fence and a sedan cruising through an immaculate housing development. The video closes with a succession of wildlife images: A panther preens beneath a tree, an owl perches on a post, birds rise into the lens. As a harmonica plays a wistful, wordless version of "Home on the Range," a deer peers from the prairie. Fright flickers in its stare as the screen blackens.

Contact Margery Gordon at her e-mail address: [email protected]

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Margery Gordon

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