By Wes Williamson, Williamson Cattle Company
As 1,000 people move to Florida every day, it’s more important than ever that lawmakers focus on ways to protect water, native wildlife and natural landscape. Agricultural lands supply wide, open spaces of valuable habitat and include wetlands that act as natural water storage helping to clean our drinking water. However, Florida’s ranch country is disappearing quickly.
Conservation easements are a cost-effective solution to this problem. They preserve wildlife habitat for threatened species like the Florida panther and protect water quality, all the while maintaining the vitality of the agricultural industry.
Lucky for us, Florida is already a national leader in land protection. Two state programs utilize conservation easements as a land protection tool — the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the Florida Forever Program.
Conservation easements involve the purchase of development rights on a property ensuring the land remains undeveloped, while management remains the responsibility of the landowner. Landowners can continue sustainable land use practices such as ranching but are also maintaining the land for its natural resource values. It is a way to make sure the land stays as it is forever.
It has always been my family’s goal to run a profitable business that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.
We are third- and fourth-generation ranchers, operating the Williamson Cattle Company in Okeechobee. The ranch was established in the 1940s by my grandfather, Frank Williamson, Sr., who passed it down to my father, Frank “Sonny” Williamson, Jr., a citrus grower, rancher and aquaculturist. Now I manage the ranch with my son and daughter.
My dad was ahead of his time. He understood that farmers must protect and preserve our natural environment to sustain our industry. He always told us: God has entrusted us with a small piece of His earth. It is our responsibility to be good stewards of the land.
This philosophy is what guided us to apply for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, with the help of the Florida Conservation Group (FCG). Our ranch will celebrate 75 years in operation this year, and we intend to be ranching for another 75 years or more. We think it’s extremely important, not just for our family business, but for the state of Florida, that we protect our rural landscape and all the benefits it provides.
As people pour into the state, Florida is growing in population by more than 300,000 people per year. This means a very significant loss of rural, natural and agricultural land. If this rate of growth continues, Florida can expect to lose at least 50,000 acres of rural land per year to development.
I don’t blame people for wanting to move here. Florida is a great place to live.
But if we don’t protect our cattle ranches, we may see all our agricultural lands succumb to what my father always called the “final crop” — houses.
I want to thank Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson, the Legislature and the governor for their support of these conservation easement programs and urge lawmakers to continue to fund them during the upcoming legislative session. Conservation of agricultural lands is absolutely critical for the longevity and health of our beautiful state.
Wes Williamson is a cattle rancher. Wes and his family own the Williamson Cattle Company in Okeechobee County. He is the past president of the Florida Cattleman Association and recipient of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award.
This opinion piece was originally published by the Fort Myers News-Press, which is a media partner of The Invading Sea. If you are interested in submitting an opinion piece to The Invading Sea, email Editor Nathan Crabbe at email@example.com. Sign up for The Invading Sea newsletter by visiting here.