It took, as Jim Handley with the Florida Cattlemen’s Association says, “over-communicating.” Add to that, says Sarah Lynch with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), lots of time and patience and collaboration and perseverance and plain hard work.

But the result, says Jimmy Wohl, with Rafter T Ranch at Okeechobee, FL, was well worth the heartburn, because the result is a win-win for central Florida ranchers and the environmental health of the Everglades ecosystem.

Here’s what “it” is: the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services Program, an initiative that Lynch says generates the environmental services of water retention and phosphorus-load reduction that are critically needed in south-central Florida. “We did that in such a way that the people who can produce that product are cattle ranchers in the northern Everglades eco-region. We did this through a payment for environmental services approach,” she says.

In short, the program reverses 100 years of water-management philosophy. Instead of draining the 54 in. of rain that falls on the region every year, ranchers can be paid for retaining the water and rehydrating the once sprawling wetlands that feed the vast Everglades region.

It wasn’t easy, Lynch says. When WWF first envisioned the idea, they had to convince skeptical ranchers, enviros, and state and federal bureaucrats that the concept could grow legs and stand on its own. But the need was compelling – the environmental consequences of a century of drainage projects were killing the area.

The effort began eight years ago. To address the water-quality issues in the region, Handley says state and federal agencies were looking to buy large tracts of land, which would have taken them out of agricultural production.

But they came to the realization that they needed cooperation from private landowners because they couldn’t buy enough, Handley says. “And if they bought it, they did not have the experience or knowledge to manage it. So it was a win-win” to develop a program that utilizes the ability of ranchers to manage the environment, something they do every day anyway. “This offered the potential of one more tool, one more mechanism, that might keep us ranching and enhances what we’re already doing with the environment.”

The effort culminates this month with the first solicitation, where ranchers can bid in a competitive process for fixed-term contracts to retain water on their property. Lynch hopes the program becomes a multi-year effort and more ranchers in the region opt in as they see both the economic and environmental benefits.

To Wohl, it makes sense. He’s one of eight ranchers who cooperated with WWF to develop the concept. “I’m involved with it because I’ve seen over the years (what resulted) when we didn’t have more collaboration with private industry and environmental advocacy groups. We’ve got to find common ground. That’s all there is to it.”

To learn more about the project, and other presentations at the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, go to www.sustainablelivestock.org.
-- Burt Rutherford