The Florida Cabinet on Tuesday unanimously approved the $2.9 million purchase of a perpetual conservation easement on 1,619 acres of land in eastern Polk County.


WINTER HAVEN – The Florida Cabinet on Tuesday unanimously approved the $2.9 million purchase of a perpetual conservation easement on 1,619 acres of land in eastern Polk County.

The land lies within the Lake Hatchineha Ranch project run by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, according to state documents.

The easement means the property owner can retain ownership of the land but gives up the right to develop it. It is currently a cattle ranch with about half the property heavily forested and several wetlands scattered throughout, according to a Cabinet report.

“The property is exceptional in its overall natural resource benefits and amount of valuable habitat for rare and endangered species,” it says.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, a Cabinet member, strongly supported the purchase. A Bartow native, Putnam’s family runs citrus and cattle operations.

“Florida’s farmers and ranchers are our state’s original conservationists, and partnering with them through conservation easements is the most cost-effective way to preserve these invaluable pieces of our rural economy and environment for future generations,” he said in a press statement.

The land is surrounded by more than 20,000 acres of conservation land including 2,057 acres in the Nature Conservancy of Florida’s Hatchineha Ranch Mitigation Bank, a nature preserve.

“Protection of the Lake Hatchineha Ranch property though the Department of Agriculture’s Rural and Family Lands Program will provide important natural resource benefits,” said Greg Knecht, the Nature Conservancy’s deputy state director, in an email to The Ledger. “This acquisition, when coupled with the surrounding state and federal lands and the approximately 13,000 acres owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in the area, will result in a nearly continuous wildlife corridor and provide water quality and quantity benefits.”

The Hatchineha easement is part of the Catfish Creek Florida Forever Project of roughly 20,000 acres, state documents show. The state has acquired only about half of the acres in the Catfish Creek project.

The Cabinet also approved purchasing a conservation easement on 1,410 acres of an Okeechobee County ranch. That raised the total land preserved under the Rural and Family Lands Program to 25,343 acres involving 30 easements, according to an Agriculture Department press statement.

— Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-401-6980.