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News Release

Preserving Old Florida

Roney Gutierrez


Right before the sun crests the horizon, Cary Lightsey saddles up to round up the 250-head herd. Cary, his son, 6-year-old grandson and hired cowboys are separating the calves from the cows today, just like they do every May.

The Lightsey family has been running cattle in central Florida since the 1850s, but with 1,000 people moving to Florida daily, development encroaches on their legacy and the natural resources that support it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017 Florida was among the five fastest-growing states in the U.S.

“I have always had a love for the land and wanted to preserve it, not only for the family, but also for the state,” Cary says. Cary and his brother Layne have put 90 percent of their land on 10 ranches into easements located in Osceola, Polk and Highlands counties. “It belongs to Layne and me, three generations with our kids and grandchildren: 32 of us all,” he says. “My priorities are God, family, land. In that order,” he says.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helped him restore three wetlands on 2,800 acres. In Florida the agency has provided financial and technical assistance for landowners to restore approximately 83,000 acres of wetlands and preserve 35,712 acres of agricultural land through easements. The Lightseys acquired conservation easements on the rest of their property through other state and non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting sensitive ecosystems and open spaces.

“A lot of good reasons for easements,” says Cary. “Conservation easements preserve the land.  This land is going to stay just the way it was,” he says.

Ranching is Florida’s heritage, dating back to the 16th century when the Spanish arrived. The total value of cattle in Florida exceeds $1 billion and the Florida beef industry has an economic impact of $900 million annually. (Florida Department of Agriculture

According to the National Resources Inventory, Florida lost an average of 62,028 acres of agricultural land a year between 1982-2007, converted into subdivisions, strip malls and asphalt.

 “People don’t come to Florida to see a subdivision, they want to see green space. My goal is to encourage other ranchers to acquire easements to preserve this land for the future. We are losing our state,” Cary says. The Lightseys joined the Florida Conservation Group, a coalition of ranchers that advocates for conservation easement funding.  Julie Morris, the organization’s president, formed the group to help landowners apply for easements with federal and state organizations. “We're in a race against time to protect our most sensitive areas,” she says. According to Julie, development is encroaching from the north to south-central Florida into the northern Everglades and creeping from the east to west coast. Major development is pushing into panther habitat in southwest Florida.

Pristine native vegetation, endangered species and rare orchids abound on the Lightseys’ ranches. Taking a break, Cary stands quietly with folded hands in a hammock not far from the cattle pens. Long sweeping branches draped in Spanish moss form vaulted tunnels that dwarf him while he gazes up at tiny endangered spider orchids growing on the bark of a 150-year-old oak tree.  Just north of the hammock Tiger Lake spreads into the distance, wading birds border the water’s edge and eagles perch on nearby Cypress trees scanning for prey. Cary has seen two endangered snail kites nesting here.

“This land is developing too fast. Once they develop it, it’s gone – lost productivity that was going to feed a hungry world,” Cary says.

Are you a private landowner interested in a conservation easement? Wetland Reserve Easements provide financial and technical assistance to ranchers and farmers to protect and restore wetlands. Agricultural Land Easements provide funds to partners, such as state and local governments, Indian tribes and non-profits, to purchase conservation easements on agricultural lands.

For more information about USDA programs and services, contact your local USDA service center.