MICHELE NORRIS, host: In Florida, federal officials have released plans for a new wildlife preserve south of Orlando.
As NPR's Greg Allen reports, the federal preserve will include at least 150,000 acres. But there's a twist - most of it will remain under private ownership.
GREG ALLEN: Visitors mostly come to central Florida for its theme parks and beaches, but there are other attractions.
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ALLEN: Long before Walt Disney set his sights on this part of the state, it was known for its lakes, rivers and grasslands.
Charlie Pelizza, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says this area includes dry prairie habitat, sand hills, and scrub area found nowhere else in the world.
CHARLIE PELIZZA: We're also looking at a landscape that is just covered with endangered species and threatened species. I think there is 98 in this habitat, in this landscape of the Everglades headwaters.
ALLEN: Pelizza is showing off some of that habitat at a wilderness preserve near Kissimmee, just south of Orlando. This area will be on the northern edge of the new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.
The Interior Department recently released a map and details for the new preserve. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working, along with the Nature Conservancy, to protect at least 150,000 acres from development - an area that includes wetlands, rivers and lakes.
Pelizza said preserving it will help save another natural area, the Everglades, 90 miles to the south.
PELIZZA: This is where the water starts and ultimately ends up down in the Everglades National Park, out into Florida Bay. So it's really important to make sure that the water quality and the distribution of that water from here is healthy, so that the restoration activities that are occurring further south have better water quality and better distribution.
ALLEN: To create the refuge and conservation area, Fish and Wildlife is trying something it's done in other parts of the country, but which is new in Florida. Instead of buying the land outright, the agency is seeking to create most of the refuge through conservation easements. Cattle ranchers and other big landowners would retain ownership, but give up their rights to develop the property for housing or shopping centers.
Mark Musaus of Fish and Wildlife says two-thirds of the refuge will be protected through those agreements with land owners.
MARK MASAUS: We can get more through easements than we can through fee title, in terms of the purchase. It is costly to be able to operate fee title land, so that's a factor as well, but I think we realize that as we are facing the conservation challenges that are out there today, that we can do more in a partnership effort, working with those that are already there and also have the same kind of vision that we do.
ALLEN: Musaus is talking about the cattle ranchers who pioneered central Florida and still own large rural sections of the state. One of those ranchers, Mike Adams, owns a 50,000-acre ranch started by his grandfather in the 1930s. He says he'll be interested in the conservation plan if it's done correctly.
MIKE ADAMS: You know, we have aspects to our ranch that we'd like to see preserved forever. At the same time, we're what we consider kind of a modern cow/calf operation, so it has to be flexible enough to allow us to change.
ALLEN: Adams says there are some good models out there for conservation easements, and Fish and Wildlife appears to be listening. In public hearings earlier this year, the agency heard from some ranchers who made it clear they just weren't interested.
The agency now says it will not use eminent domain to acquire land in agreements with landowners and will only work with ranchers who want to sell. Fish and Wildlife hopes that will tamp down concerns from independent ranchers and other landowners suspicious of a government land grab.
Mike Adams says, for ranchers, signing over some property rights may make the difference between staying in the cattle business or selling out to developers.
ADAMS: This will help keep our land values down so that we can transfer it to the next generation. It's kind of like my father. He left plenty of work ahead of me and I'd like to do the same to my kids. You know, give them the tools to continue.
ALLEN: Fish and Wildlife plans to spend some $600 million on the project. It hopes to begin acquiring land and easements for the new Everglades Headwaters Refuge by the end of next year.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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