Habitat Conservation Plan Incentive-Based Strategy Needs Your Help!

Audubon of the Western Everglades and its conservation partners, Audubon Florida, Defenders of Wildlife and Florida Wildlife Federation, have supported the strategy of incentivizing some of the largest landowners in the nation to protect at least two thirds of their lands around Immokalee for panthers, wood storks, and 16 other imperiled species.  That strategy, called Rural Land Stewardship, is our best hope for saving connected habitats and wetlands and is being publicly threatened by some who advocate only regulations to protect private habitat, which is shown widely to result in fragmentation of large areas of habitat (many such permits end up in court, one at a time).  Rural Land Stewardship is up for a federal permit to create a 50 year Habitat Conservation Plan – see more information on AWE’s website below, including this factsheet [link].  There is no other strategy that comes close to the acreage and ecological habitat benefits of the Rural Land Stewardship Program and its Eastern Collier Habitat Conservation Plan – none!

Help AWE support this innovative and proven conservation strategy, which has already protected 50,000 acres of habitat and wetlands since Rural Land Stewardship started in 2002.  Please send a brief note to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service during the public comment period for the Habitat Conservation Plan, which ends on December 3.  Here is how to do it, and below are some suggested talking points to include any or all of in your note:

  1. Visit www.regulations.gov
  2. Search for: FWS-R4-ES-2018-0079 (the “docket file number”)
  3. Click on “Eastern Collier Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan”
  4. Under Primary Documents, click “Comment Now”.
  5. Post a comment expressing your support for the HCP.

Here are some talking points to consider – support the HCP because:

  • It is the only feasible plan that protects over 100,000 acres of connected habitat for panthers and 18 other species.
  • It is much better than usual project by project permitting which leaves fragmented habitat for panthers, wood storks, and other wide-roaming species.
  • It provides $150 million of added wildlife habitat protection over and above usual mitigation required.
  • It directs development away from wetlands and habitat to lower conservation value cleared farm fields.
  • Private lands are key to many imperiled species’ recovery and survival.

This private lands conservation approach, in Collier County’s Rural Land Stewardship Program, has already protected 50,000 acres of habitat – it works!

AWE is the Vanguard of Landscape-Level Conservation

Courtesy Defenders of Wildlife


“…the epic collaboration did result in a thoughtful, science-based roadmap for a healthy ecosystem and sustainable development across a landscape. That’s the model for the future of conservation.” – Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, speaking of the Greater Sage Grouse collaboration including over 1,100 ranchers, resulting in the largest landscape-level conservation effort in US History, covering millions of acres and protecting over 350 wildlife species.

In the 1990’s, AWE and Florida Wildlife Federation joined a state lawsuit against Collier County, arguing it was not directing future development away from highly valuable conservation lands in eastern Collier County. We won, and 1999 ushered in an ambitious, innovative collaboration which already has permanently protected about 50,000 acres of the most environmentally-sensitive lands in the County, with much more to come. It is called Rural Lands Stewardship Program (RLSP).

© Google Maps

Source: Collier County. Disclaimer: AWE does not endorse this depiction. It illustrates that adoption of 2009 recommendations would vastly increase potential protection acreage.

The Goal:

Permanently protect and restore approximately 134,000 acres of wetlands and prime habitat for multitudes of wildlife, including 18 listed species, and including about 40,000 acres of farms and ranches – all the while keeping the land in private ownership and management. When fully implemented, this initiative will be the largest private landowner-incentive effort ever achieved East of the Mississippi River.

Protection Goal

Twice the size of Cape Coral

Goal Achieved

1.5 times the size of Disney World

Camp Keais Strand Protection and future restoration area. Courtesy of Collier Enterprises.

RLSP in a Nutshell:

Private landowners

agree to eliminate their rights to build houses in important natural habitat and water flow areas, and even to spend their own money restoring degraded wetlands and farmed lands. In exchange, those development rights are transferred to land with lower habitat values, increasing buildable density there.

Right now, the County is evaluating amendments to the original RLSP Rules to strengthen the conservation elements. Link 1 Link 2adobe Van Lengen memo

AWE and its conservation partners support the proposed amendments.

© University of Florida. Source: Southwest Florida Landscape Conversation Design. December 2017.

On a separate but parallel track,

AWE and its partners – Defenders of Wildlife and Florida Wildlife Federation, and 8 private landowners controlling 195,000 acres in eastern Collier County – formed the Florida Panther Protection Program in 2007.

The Goal:  Develop a Habitat Conservation Plan acceptable to all parties to protect 18 wildlife species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

AWE is at the table with all parties, hammering out a plan that best protects this amazing array of imperiled wildlife species. Through negotiations with landowners, AWE and its conservation allies have achieved the following:

  • Landowners applied for a multi-species HCP, and AWE convinced the US Fish & Wildlife Service of the value and priority of this multi-species HCP and the precedent it will set nationally;
  • AWE has leveraged significant conservation outcomes. Examples include:
  • The best locations for several wildlife road crossings, based on panther-vehicle collision data;
  • Planned restoration of 930 acres of row crops to habitat (“football” and “frying pan”) in Camp Keais Strand, thus widening the flowway to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and a change in the location of ingress to and egress from this area for Florida Panthers;
  • Preservation of an important bird hotspot at the northwest corner of Oil Well Road and Oil Well Grade Road (“Duck Pond”);
  • Increased connectivity and functionality planned between the CREW Marsh, through King Ranch’s West Hendry Sector Plan to Spirit of the Wild in Hendry County; incentivized restoration of a functional wildlife movement linkage between the Okaloacoochee Slough and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and continued assurance of regional connectivity of habitat through the HCP process;
  • Encouragement of agricultural participating landowners to remain in talks and support further incentives to protect approximately 40,000 acres of farm and ranch lands, including within important wildlife habitat;
  • Submission of comments to the participating landowners and federal government on drafts of the HCP has resulted in habitat protection improvements in the HCP.