By Barbara Liston
KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) - With Florida cattlemen looking on, Obama administration officials announced on Friday the latest infusion of $80 million into an Everglades restoration plan to buy development rights to farms and ranches and improve water flow.
The administration says its three-year, multi-agency $1.5 billion investment in the project since 2009 has created 6,600 jobs. President Barack Obama has also requested $246 million for 2013.
"We're doing it to preserve the quality of the water and the quantity of water so that agriculture will have the use of it appropriately and the 8 million people in the region who rely on it will continue to have clean water," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told Reuters.
Many cattlemen like Cary Lightsey, a sixth generation rancher who manages 42,000 acres near Kissimmee, applaud the program which provides cash and tax incentives to keep the land in agricultural use and preserve wildlife habitat.
"I would just rather die one day with respect, knowing I saved the land for our family and for the state of Florida," Lightsey said.
He said he was the first rancher to place his land under a conservation easement 25 years ago, ceding some of his rights to the land.
Restoration of the Everglades, a major source of drinking water for South Florida which was drained and polluted by decades of mismanaged development, began in earnest in the 1980s.
The $80 million in funding announced on Friday is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wetlands Reserve Program and will go toward restoring 23,000 acres of wetlands.
Friday's announcement "is another important step toward restoring America's Everglades," said Eric Eikenberg, head of the non-profit Everglades Foundation which seeks to restore and protect the 2-million-acre (800,000-hectare) wetlands ecosystem.
"We are grateful to the Obama Administration and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for their continuing effort to work together to find the right solutions," he added in a statement.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency and state of Florida are also in negotiations to settle two longstanding federal lawsuits filed by conservationists and an American Indian tribe contending that government stood by while the sugar industry polluted the Everglades in violation of clean water standards.
The settlement would commit Florida to funding about $890 million in restoration projects, according to The Miami Herald.
Conservationist Hilary Swain, executive director of the Archbold Biological Station conservation center in Venus, Florida, said the Obama administration funding helped fill a void created when state conservation land programs dried up in 2008.
Much of the current funding targets the northern Everglades, a swath through the interior of the state from the Kissimmee and Disney World theme park area to Lake Okeechobee. The area is a huge watershed feeding the lake and swamps.
Cattle ranching and agriculture are a $100 billion industry in Florida. Swain said Florida ranching is focused on raising and selling calves which is considered to have a relatively low impact on the Everglades, and that the ranchers help provide expert management of large areas of land.
Ranchers and conservationists have found common ground in the fight to preserve land in natural or semi-natural states to protect the Everglades, she added.
"We have more in common than we have to divide us, and we focus on it," she said.
(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)