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ORLANDO-The Nature Conservancy of Arlington, VA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are partnering with Florida ranchers to restore and manage 350,000 sf of wetlands in the Lake Okeechobee watershed.

In a prepared statement, the Conservancy says it would accomplish this by purchasing conservation easements from Florida ranchers on rangelands and flowage easements over former wetlands.

The program is called Florida Lands and Outstanding Waters (FLOW).

Jill Austin, the Conservancy’s media relations manager, tells GlobeSt.com the Conservancy and its partners have never said they plan to block commercial development along the 200-mile stretch of Kissimmee River from Osceola County in Central Florida to Lake Okeechobee in South Florida.

But area land brokers familiar with the proposal tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity the purchase of conservation easements or development rights from the ranchers by the Conservancy and its partners will have the same effect as a specified effort to halt or slow new commercial development.

“This is largely an exercise in semantics,” a South Florida broker tells GlobeSt.com. “Almost everybody in the commercial development field is for the restoration and preservation of wetlands to some degree.”

Austin says a published report in a daily newspaper citing an estimated $700 million cost for the restoration plan is “not correct.”

“Our only prepared statement…contains no figures and refers to a use of a combination of public and private funds to purchase conservation easements on rangelands and flowage easements over former wetlands,” Austin tells GlobeSt.com.

She says, “This is a program for willing landowners interested in restoring drained wetlands.”

To fund the wetlands restoration program, a published report states about $472 million of the estimated $700 million needed would come from the six-year, $190 billion farm bill President Bush signed in May.

The remaining $228 million would come from state grants and private individual and corporate donations, according to the published report.

About $50 million in federal funds will be available to Florida for the 2002 budget year beginning Oct. 1, the report states.

Austin tells GlobeSt.com she can’t address those figures but refers to a comment from state conservationist Niles Glasgow in the Conservancy’s prepared statement.

“We believe that these projects show how the conservation provisions of the new Farm Bill can be used in a creative way to restore the natural environment and to sustain a viable agricultural community here in Florida,” Glasgow says.

The plan’s success depends on the cooperation of individual ranchers. The Conservancy and its partners would pay the ranchers to maintain the restored wetlands.

About $50 million has been spent on saving the Kissimmee River to date, according to the published report.

But buying conservation easements from the ranchers may turn out to be costlier than Conservancy officials estimate, local industrial real estate brokers tell Globe St.com on condition of anonymity.

Land in the Kissimmee, FL area, only 10 miles from Walt Disney World’s 30,000-acre enclave, has escalated in the past five years.

“The conservancy may have better luck buying development rights near Lake Okeechobee where commercial, residential and retail development hasn’t been as intense as it has up here,” a land broker tells GlobeSt.com.

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