The Cooperative Conservation Blueprint (Blueprint) is a multi-partner planning process initiated in 2007 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as part of implementing the 2005 State Wildlife Action Plan. The Blueprint process brings together diverse stakeholders such as landowners, the environmental community, industry, federal, state and local governments, universities, scientists and citizens. Wildlands Conservation has been involved in the Blueprint since January of 2011.
The purpose of the Blueprint is to develop broad agreement on both voluntary, non-regulatory conservation incentives and a vision of regional wildlife habitat and connectivity priorities to which existing and new incentive ideas apply.
In 2011 FWC decided to focus Blueprint efforts in the Southwest Florida region, largely because of ongoing corridor planning that was already happening, and because of importance of the region for landscape-scale conservation. Wildlands Conservation worked closely with the FWC and the University of Florida to coordinate efforts on the ground in southwest Florida.
The goal of the SW Florida Blueprint was to:
- Generate broad agreement on a set of wildlife corridors that connects existing public conservation lands in the counties of Collier, Lee, Hendry, Glades, Highlands, Hardee, Desoto, Polk and eastern Charlotte and Sarasota County.
- Identify voluntary, incentives-based conservation programs and strategies to facilitate protection of these corridors.
Three regional connectivity committees were formed in order to focus on planning wildlife corridors including applicable existing and new incentives for each region. The committees were comprised of stakeholders representing large and small landowners, the environmental community, scientists, agencies, local government, industry and development. The three committees were: The ‘Fisheating Creek-Avon Park committee’ focused on the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area to Avon Park Air Force Range; The ‘Peace River committee’ focused on the Peace River region; this included the area from Babcock Ranch Preserve to the Green Swamp; The ‘Caloosahatchee committee’ focused on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area and to the Babcock Ranch Preserve. Wildlands Conservation, together with Dr. Tom Hoctor, lead the efforts of the Fisheating Creek/Avon Park and Peace River Committees.
We were tasked with examining science-based priorities, and developing corridors based on those priorities while taking into consideration the ‘on the ground’ reality of corridor opportunities and protection. Future land use, strategic large ownerships, parcel fragmentation, DOT plans, roads, current land uses, landowner buy-in (when available) and local expertise were all examined in the effort to identify corridors. Additionally, overlaying Florida panther and Florida black bear radio telemetry locations, existing wildlife underpasses, and roadkill of bears and panthers was also useful when making corridor recommendations.
The three committees recommended several corridors, which were primary opportunities to protection functional connections between existing public and private conservation lands in the ten counties of the Southwest Florida Blueprint study area. These are draft routing options; we are continuing to vet them with landowners. The Blueprint is intended to have broad agreement, be built around a consensus, and promote incentives-based approaches to conservation; maps will not be made public until the corridors are vetted by the potentially affected landowners.
Ultimately, the ideal result is an ‘Implementation Tool’ for the Southwest Florida Blueprint area that has a menu of voluntary, non-regulatory incentive programs matched to priority corridors and/or to focal areas. As part of the process, we examined all existing incentive/acquisition programs that might be applicable to the corridors in the Southwest Florida Blueprint study area.
Future Blueprint Work
At this point, we have draft corridors that have been selected as the ‘highest priority’ in the region for voluntary incentive, easement, and acquisition programs. Our stakeholder groups have also recommended a number of incentives and conservation strategies that could be applied to these corridors.
Landowner buy-in is essential to the success of our efforts; corridor conservation is dependent on the willingness of the landowners to participate in the Blueprint. Conversations with landowners about corridor protection opportunities are the next step of the process. At the same time, agency buy-in to these corridors is critical to corridor protection. We intend to explore partnerships with various agencies to develop the needed incentives; this has begun and needs to continue. An example of an incentive for corridor protection is the new FWC Gopher Tortoise Pilot Payment for Ecosystem Services Program; landowners in corridors identified in this process will be eligible to participate in this program. We also need to work to refine the corridors based on landowner vetting, additional analysis, etc. Strategic or focal areas need to be identified so we can utilize new and existing incentives effectively.
Next Steps with Landowners:
- Talk to strategic landowners in corridors to discuss specific incentive programs and their interests (on-going).
- Vet corridors with landowners (start with larger/strategic landowners); refine corridors accordingly (on-going).
- Continue dialogue.
Identify Strategic areas (to utilize incentives strategically):
Additional analysis needs to be done to identify strategic and/or focal areas. These areas are:
- High priority areas for conservation that are threatened by development in the near future
- High priority areas for conservation that are bottlenecks within identified wildlife/ecological corridors
- High priority areas for conservation that have very high feasibility for protection in the near future such as qualification for existing conservation programs, landowner interest, etc.
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