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Interior secretary tours Kissimmee Impressed with river restoration project, new wildlife refuge

SEBRING - Sally Jewell's boat moved from the Lake Istokpoga boat ramp on Thursday morning to the point on the Kissimmee River where the Army Corps of Engineers had deepened, straightened and widened 50 years ago to reduce flooding. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior saw little wildlife, because 40,000 acres of floodplain below Lake Kissimmee had dried out.

The number of herons, egrets and wood storks on those long, dredged straightaways had been reduced by two-thirds. Largemouth bass in the river had also disappeared. After the 1960s, the river contributed about 25 percent of the nitrogen and 20 percent of the phosphorus flowing into the lake.

Then Jewell's boat rounded a bend, where there were sandbars and weeds and birds by the flock. Here, the Corps tour showed how engineers in the 1990s reversed the environmental damage they had inflicted in the 1960s.

"It's completely different," said Jewell, a former banker and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. Two weeks after Ken Salazar resigned in April, she was confirmed by the Senate.

Jewell braved Central Florida rains and chilly temperatures on Thursday morning for another reason: as part of the Obama administration's commitment to restore and protect the Everglades, she marked the progress and met with regional stakeholders like Lefty Durando, a cattle rancher in the northwest corner of Okeechobee County. This was Jewell's second visit to the Everglades.

At the Durando Ranch, she met with ranchers and private landowners to discuss next step: the January 2012 establishment of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. The purpose of the refuge is to conserve and restore habitat needed for more than 200 imperiled varieties of fish, wildlife and plants, and to clean the water that flows though rivers and canals from Lake Istokpoga on its way to Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean.

On Friday evening, the secretary will keynote the 29th annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Naples.

Like other senior ranchers, Durando said he and his wife were looking for an exit strategy. The ranch would support the four members of his nuclear family, but he said but it wouldn't support an extended family of 18.

Selling a conservation easement for the Everglades Headwaters Refuge was the perfect solution, and Durando encouraged other ranchers to do the same.

Paul Ebersbach didn't have to be sold. The Avon Park bombing range's chief of environmental flight looked over two poster-sized maps prepared by the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

"Here's your interest area," Ebersbach's index finger circled 150,000 acres north of Lake Okeechobee. Two-thirds of the acreage, or 100,000 acres, will be protected through conservation easements purchased from willing sellers. With easements like the ones Durando will provide, private landowners will retain their land and the right to raise cattle or crops. The easements would ensure the land could not be developed.

In the center, the Air Force range was highlighted in green. "This is the biggest patch of green on the map," Ebersbach said.

Independent of the refuge, the federal government has been buying conservation easements for decades around the Air Force base.

Why? Because it's a training area for five military bases in South and Central Florida. And when the U.S. Navy anchors off Florida's coast, carrier pilots also fly over, sometimes for their only opportunity to fire live bullets and drop dummy bombs before embarking with the fleet.

Interest area, to Ebersbach, means, "These landowners have said they're interested sellers. So what are you (Jewell and the federal government) going to do about it? Where is the money to do it?"