Restoration is next for Cone Ranch
January 31, 2010
Now that the 12,800-acre Cone Ranch is safely preserved in Hillsborough County's conservation program, what happens next?
County commissioners voted 10 days ago to transfer the ranch from the county water department to the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. The conservation program will pay $12 million to acquire the land, the same price the water department paid for it in 1988.
The commission's vote not only increased the county's conservation lands by 27 percent, it also guaranteed the preservation of an important wildlife corridor and watershed for the Hillsborough River.
"It's the most fantastic piece we've ever acquired," said Jan Smith, chair of the ELAPP General Committee.
But nature lovers who are raring to explore the ranch's cypress domes, fern marshes and pine forests will have to be patient. The county parks department, which manages most ELAPP land, does not have enough employees to make sure the ranch is safe for hikers, bird watchers and other naturalists.
"In order for us to adequately manage Cone Ranch we're looking at an addition of six or seven staff to continue managing at the same level we're managing other ELAPP sites," said Mark Thornton, director of the parks department. "We know that's probably not something that's going to occur this year and probably not next year."
But the several years' delay in opening the park will give the county time for needed restoration efforts. Cone Ranch may be an environmental jewel, but it's a flawed one in sore need of refurbishing.
A working cattle ranch since the early 20th century, much of the land has been cleared, fenced and scored by ditches dug to drain swamps. Since the water department bought the ranch in 1988, it has been leased for cattle grazing and sod farming.
Land has been drained
Key to fulfilling the land's ecological potential, environmentalists say, is filling in the ditches and restoring the natural water flow. Holding water on the property longer gives it time to seep into the aquifer, cleaning it and recharging streams that feed the Hillsborough River.
"That is what this restoration is all about: trying to collect the millions of gallons of water on the property," said Denise Layne, a member of the ELAPP general committee. "Right now half of it runs off every year because of all the ditching and the way they chopped up the land."
The first step in restoring the land is writing a management plan, county officials say. Layne said two plans were done years ago but need to be updated. The county wants to use restored wetlands on the property as mitigation banks, which can sell credits to developers who destroy wetlands elsewhere.
"The theory would be that any money that came in from the mitigation banks could be used for management of the ranch by parks and recreation or for (further) restoration," said Mike Kelly, the county's real estate director.
The county could undertake restoring and operating the mitigation banks, or it could get a third party to do it. Kelly said the South Florida Water Management District has contracted with a private company to develop and manage a large mitigation bank.
Smith, the ELAPP chair, envisions volunteers helping to restore the wetlands.
"It might even be a wonderful opportunity for kids in high school to earn public service hours," Smith said.
A lucrative endeavor
Wetland mitigation banks can be quite lucrative, even if the county has to share the proceeds with a third-party operator. A wetland mitigation credit - one credit for one acre of pristine, highly functioning wetlands - can go for $100,000 to $200,000 in the Hillsborough River watershed, said Andy Zodrow, an attorney for the county's Environmental Protection Commission.
Zodrow said he is eager for the county to assemble a team to start planning for restoration.
"That's my goal: to get that area restored and get ELAPP additional funds through selling restoration credits," Zodrow said.
Planning can start right away. On Wednesday, attorneys for the water department's bond insurers approved transferring the ranch to ELAPP for less than the property's market value. Previously, county bond attorneys had said covenants on the water department's outstanding bond issues required that the ranch must be sold for fair market value, which could have upped the property's price to $50 million.
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