Florida agrees to pay another $1.5 million for ranch land owned by Scott appointee for panther habitat

Greg Stanley
Naples Daily News

The state of Florida will move forward with plans to preserve about 2.5 square miles of prime panther habitat and ranch land in eastern Collier County even without federal help.

Gov. Rick Scott and the rest of the cabinet approved a $3.75 million deal Tuesday to buy a conservation easement on 1,617 acres of JB Ranch near Immokalee, south of Oil Well Road and east of State Road 29. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had planned to pay $1.5 million of the cost when the deal was first negotiated in September, but backed out before closing. The state will pick up the entire cost.

JB Ranch is owned and operated by Liesa Priddy, who was appointed by Scott to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2012 and is now its vice-chair. The 9,300-acre ranch has been in the Priddy family for generations. Two state-funded appraisals valued the easement land at between $4.2 million and $4.4 million.

The easement will essentially freeze that corner of the working cattle ranch forever. Owners will be able to keep using it as a ranch, but won't be able to develop it any further.

The purchase was applauded by local conservationists, who said such easements have become a key tool to keep essential habitat for panthers and other endangered species on private land.

'Cattle ranches are very compatible to panther habitat,' said Brad Cornell of the Audubon Society of the Western Everglades. 'The challenge is that the cats eat young calves, so ranchers aren't always too keen on having them around. But we need to keep these ranches, rather than convert them to more intensive row crops or houses or mines.'

The land deal does not include mineral rights beneath the surface, meaning oil under the easement could be drilled horizontally from neighboring properties.

But the easement does the most important thing: protect the surface of the land from development, said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

'The habitat value of this land is so important,' Payton said. 'If somebody wants to drill that would have to go through a review process and we can deal with that if and when it ever pops up. This is about ensuring that there won't be an expansion of surface mining or more intensive agriculture or some sort of recreational use like a golf course.'

The land is just north of the Big Cypress National Preserve and less than 2 miles from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The Okaloacoochee Slough travels through its eastern half.

'I've walked the ranch and it's been managed well,' Payton said. 'It's heavily used by panthers and it's loaded with deer and turkey and other native wildlife. It's quite an impressive ranch.'