We are all breathing a collective sigh of relief now that the South Florida Water Management District has approved entering into a new lease agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Refuge. While the Service manages the entire 221-square mile Refuge as a National Wildlife Refuge, all of the land inside the 57-mile perimeter canal and levee is owned by the state and leased by the federal government. The terms of the current lease agreement include goals for the eradication of invasive exotic plants, Old World climbing fern or lygodium and Melaleuca trees in particular, that have proven to be unrealistic under current funding levels.
While the state and federal governments have jointly worked to combat invasive exotics for many years, the new license agreement would shift primary responsibility to the state, with the requirement that the federal government provide a minimum level of funding. The term of the new lease agreement is anticipated to be from 10 to 20 years, depending on the level of federal funding provided. The state would also be looking for expanded recreational opportunities on the Refuge.
The new agreement appears to be a win for all parties involved, with the Refuge out from under the threat of lease termination, but with pressure still on Congress to provide additional funding. The hope is that the real winners are the native plants and animals of the Everglades, whose survival depends on a healthy ecosystem, which in turn should not have to depend on the whims of Congressional appropriations.