Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area Founded with Seven Acres Donated by Paul Gray

"I bought a ranch six years ago and was honored to be able to donate the 'seven-acre seed' to start the new national wildlife refuge unit."

In March of 2024, the “Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area” became the newest unit in the National Wildlife Refuge system. As the 4-million-acre conservation area is protected with acquisitions, easements, and landowner incentive programs, it will protect wildlife corridors, enhance access to outdoor recreation, and bolster climate resilience.

To kickstart the conservation process, Paul Gray, PhD, rancher and Everglades science coordinator at Audubon Florida, donated seven acres of land to the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area.

We chatted with Dr. Gray to learn more about his hopes for conservation in the region.

Q. When did you first become involved in ranching in Florida?

A. I came to the University of Florida in 1988 to do my dissertation on Florida’s Mottled Duck, our endemic version of the Mallard. I worked extensively on ranches because that is where most Mottled Ducks live and I developed an in-depth appreciation for what resources ranches have. 

Q. How does ranching contribute to conservation in the Sunshine State?

A. While doing this work I learned ranches are full of wildlife and have high natural resource value. Since then I have gained a greater appreciation of the many ecosystem values they have including water storage (keeping watersheds functioning), wildlife corridors, carbon sinks, climate moderators, and more. If the properties around your community stay in ranching, you won’t get increased traffic and noise congestiona big benefit! Ranches are not perfect and we need to work with them to maximize benefits and reduce environmental impacts, but the loss of ranches in this state would have such dire consequences I hate to consider it. 

Q. You play a big role in the newly designated Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area. Can you tell us about it?

A. As Audubon staff, I participated in the formation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012. We talked of the next step being a Fisheating Creek Conservation Area and that went through several considerations. The Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area is an expanded version of the Fisheating Creek concept and represents a huge advance. So, this project has been in the works, mostly behind the scenes, for more than 15 years and I have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and partners all along the way, first on concepts, next on documentation, next on public meetings and outreach, and all along the way, on getting agency approvals. 

The USFWS needs to own land to officially start a refuge “Unit,” and when I learned we had everything done except acquiring a land donor, it was a no brainer. I bought a ranch six years ago and was honored to be able to donate the “seven-acre seed” to start the Unit. And the fun part is I have (had) a beautiful little wetland on the corner of my property that has a saw palmetto fringe around it with long-leaf pines, making a very cute and ecologically interesting starting piece.

Q. What do you hope the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area will mean for Florida's birds and other wildlife species?

A. We all see the rampant growth Florida is going through. Once wild places are gone, they are gone. The land within this Conservation Area has some of Florida’s fastest growth rates and gives us another important partner for finding ways to conserve natural and semi-natural lands. These will be some of the most important green and blue areas in our future. The Everglades Headwaters Conservation Area has leveraged federal and state monies to get projects done that we might not otherwise have been able to do, and we will continue with that example to maximize what we can save, for us, and future generations.

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