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Orlando Sentinel

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New National Wildlife Refuge South of Orlando Gets its First Land Donation
By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel
January 19, 2012

OSCEOLA COUNTY--Decades of abuse have left Florida's Everglades ecosystem in a "state of crisis," but new efforts to protect vast landscapes, a war against invading python snakes, and the world's largest restoration effort are not too late, the head of the U.S. Department of Interior said Wednesday.

During a tour in Florida, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the long-awaited establishment of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, which is envisioned as eventually comprising 150,000 acres of ranch land scattered from just south of Orlando to Lake Okeechobee in South Florida.

The refuge had existed on paper only until the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted the donation of a 10-acre parcel of piney woods that had been part of the Hatchineha Ranch in Polk County and was owned by the Nature Conservancy environmental group.

Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, later spoke to the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board, praising his agency's decision earlier this week to ban importation of Burmese pythons, which infest the Everglades and are the focus of mounting eradication efforts there.

He also said that the federal agencies involved in Everglades restoration have accelerated the pace of the work in recent years.

"We are in a state of crisis, but if we didn't think we could address the critical issues, which are water flow and water quality and land preservation, we wouldn't be into this," Salazar said. "We think we can succeed, and I think we've seen tremendous progress."

The Everglades ecosystem starts with the tiny Shingle and Reedy creeks in Orange County and includes Osceola County's big lakes. Farther south, the ecosystem encompasses landscapes along the Kissimmee River and around Lake Okeechobee, as well as the celebrated "River of Grass" at Florida's southern tip.

The Everglades refuge is to include 50,000 acres purchased outright and another 100,000 acres for which the Interior Department will buy only development rights.