We are proposing the establishment of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge, NWR) and the establishment of an associated Everglades Headwaters Conservation Area (Conservation Area) as the first phase of a multi-phase approach to address landscape-scale land protection efforts in south-central Florida. This new approach is described as the Greater Everglades Strategic Habitat Conservation Initiative (Initiative) which will conserve the land, water, and wildlife resources of the Greater Everglades area.
This area is one of the great grassland and savanna landscapes of eastern North America. Still largely rural, this Greater Everglades area is a mosaic of seasonally wet grasslands, longleaf pine savannas, and cattle ranches that sustains one of the most important assemblages of imperiled vertebrate wildlife in the southeast U.S. and a large portion of the unprotected natural habitat remaining in peninsular Florida.
This Initiative would conserve lands and restore habitat within this Greater Everglades landscape, thus creating and connecting a matrix of conservation lands and critical wildlife corridors. The Initiative, being first introduced here and in its early formative stages, is also being considered during the development of the Peninsular Florida Landscape Conservation Cooperative. The Initiative will be fully developed and described during detailed planning for the proposed Everglades Headwaters NWR.
Conservation Benefits of the Proposed Refuge
The proposed Refuge and Conservation Area would help:
- Protect, restore and conserve important habitat for 88 federal and state listed species and state Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), including Florida panther, Florida black bear, Audubon’s crested caracara, Florida scrub jay, Florida grasshopper sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, whooping crane, Everglades snail kite, wood stork, and Eastern indigo snake (learn more about these animals on the Benefits to Wildlife page)
- Protect, restore, and conserve exemplary habitats such as wet and dry prairie, Florida sandhill and scrub, scrubby and mesic flatwoods, and multiple wetland types including cutthroat seepage slope wetlands;
- Protect, restore, and conserve the headwaters, groundwater recharge and watershed of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee region, which will improve water quantity and quality in the Everglades watershed, complementing the work of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), and protecting the water supply for millions of people;
- Protect and enhance habitat corridors and implement other wildlife adaptation strategies to buffer the impacts of climate change; and
- Protect a working rural landscape, where local communities, ranching and agricultural interests, the Service, and its partners would conserve natural resources and provide opportunities for compatible outdoor recreation and educational opportunities, while preserving the economic and cultural benefits provided by ranching.
Proposed Location and Size
The proposed Everglades Headwaters NWR and Conservation Area would be located within the study area bounded by the City of Kissimmee to the north, Lake Wales Ridge to the west, St. Johns River to the east, and Lake Okeechobee to the south (see map at right). The Refuge would be centered near the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in central Florida, 50 miles south of Orlando and 75 miles east of Tampa, with a nearby population of nearly 4 million residents. In the general vicinity of the lands proposed for the establishment of the Refuge, are the Disney Wilderness Preserve to the north, Lake Wales Ridge State Forest to the west, Avon Air Force Park to the south, and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area to the east (Figures 2 and 4). The Conservation Area would be adjacent to and complement the proposed Refuge and existing conservation lands, lying primarily south and east of these lands.
- Size of the proposed Conservation Area boundary: 980,000 acres
- Total acres within the 980,000 total acerage currently being conserved by partner organizations: 690,00
- Number of unprotected acres of land within the conservation boundary upon which the Service will focus its conservation efforts: 290,000
Within the Conservation Area boundary, the Service would identify willing landowners who wish to protect their lands through conservation easements and cooperative agreements with the Refuge, up to the 100,000 acres proposed in this document.
The proposed establishment of the Everglades Headwaters Conservation Area would not result in any management being conducted by the Service on easement lands, and all land within an easement would remain in private ownership, with management of the lands remaining the responsibility of the landowner. Service responsibilities would be limited to ensuring that the terms of the easement are met. The Conservation Area also serves as a focal point for additional conservation activities by partner agencies and organizations as well as the Service.
Within this larger Conservation Area boundary, the Service would establish an approximately 50,000-acre acquisition boundary. The Service would acquire, protect and manage, through fee title purchases, leases, conservation easements, and/or cooperative agreements from willing sellers, lands within this acquisition boundary. All lands and waters acquired would be managed by the Service as part of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. Since the preliminary planning phase of this project is conceptual in nature, and habitat analyses are still underway, the exact lands to be included within the 50,000-acre acquisition boundary have not been fully identified. However, the specific lands for the approved acquisition boundary would be delineated in the detailed planning phase of this project.
For more information on how the USFWS will work with landowners, see our frequently asked questions.
Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Reed Bowman, Research Biologist, Archbold Biological Station.