THE LEDGER - May 5, 2013, By Tom Palmer
AVON PARK | The first purchases were announced last week in a program that environmental and military leaders hope will better protect the Avon Park Air Force Range's military operations and key conservation areas near the Kissimmee River.
The $2.2 million deal involves the purchase of conservation easements on 1,382 acres of ranchland in Highlands County along the southern border of the 105,000-acre military base.
The easements on part of the Rafter T Ranch and the Scrub Pens Ranch were purchased by the U.S. Air Force and The Nature Conservancy using money from state and federal grant programs.
Under the easements, which are voluntary, the land remains in private ownership and traditional ranching operations are allowed to continue. But the easements prevent further development on the property and provide cash to improve ranching families' financial security.
Easements typically cost less than outright purchases, allowing conservation dollars to go further.
"Cattle ranching provides a very low return on investment, which makes it difficult to pay inheritance taxes or dividends to shareholders," rancher Jimmy Wohl said. "With the easement placed on the property, we have some liquidity."
The idea of securing easements around the military base was one of the suggestions that arose from a land-use study that began in 2009 and was coordinated by the Central Florida Regional Planning Council at a cost of $260,981.
The goal was to prevent incompatible development from encroaching into what is still predominantly rural land surrounding the base.
The concern military officials had was that new development near the base could bring complaints about noise from low-flying military aircraft and use of live ammunition during military training operations, forcing the military to restrict or end operations.
"The establishment of these easements will facilitate minimum encroachment to Avon Park Air Force Range, ensuring our warfighters are able to obtain the most realistic training we can provide," said Lt. Col. Paul Neidhardt, the base's commander. "Not only will the easements provide a buffer for our training, they will also help preserve the Florida environment by providing habitats for threatened and endangered species."
Conservationists supported the buffers because they would protect important wildlife habitat in the area from being displaced.
"These win-win-win partnerships allow us to preserve habitat, protect Florida's ranching heritage and prevent incompatible development adjacent to bases," said Greg Knecht, The Nature Conservancy's director of protection in Florida. "We look forward to working with the military whenever we can, since our Florida bases contain acres and acres of native habitat critical for a variety of important species."
The land purchased in the first round of easements includes a substantial portion of the floodplain along Arbuckle Creek and some scrub habitat.
The Avon Park Air Force Range, which straddles the Polk-Highlands county line, is one of the prime military training sites in the United States because of its size and the amount of restricted airspace around it.
But it is also the location of extensive scientific research involving rare species such as the Florida grasshopper sparrow, Florida scrub-jay and red-cockaded woodpecker.
Planners have identified 30,000 acres in Polk and Highlands counties that might be suitable for purchase of conservation easements, but one issue has been funding because the estimated price tag is at least $60 million.
The Nature Conservancy said one source of money for some of these purchases could come from Florida's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
The Florida Legislature approved $11 million for this program in the final days of this year's regular session, The Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Jill Austin said.
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