In Florida, management of water is crucial to human residents, agriculture, and wildlife. The rain that falls on the savannahs in the center of the state fills the Kissimmee River, which drains into Lake Okechobee, which in turn supplies the Everglades “river of grass,” as well as providing drinking water for about 40 percent of Floridians. In the 1930s, ranchers began to dig drainage ditches which converted thousands of acres of central Florida wetland into pasture. Fresh water that had gone to the Everglades was increasingly diverted to canals dumping into the sea on the east and west coasts. The Kissimmee and Okechobee suffered; the Everglades retreated; and the tracts south of Orlando that had previously acted as sponges absorbing billions of gallons of water during Florida’s rainy season, then slowly filtering it south, were now impermeable hard grassland or, increasingly, urban development. Complicated engineering to restore the health of Florida’s hydrological system turned out to be extremely expensive, so regulators, developers, and nature nonprofits began to jointly seek more natural solutions.
A partnership between the Disney Company and the Nature Conservancy suggested that plugging the drainage ditches on the cattle ranches in central Florida and restoring their degraded but reclaimable wetlands could be a comparatively simple and effective contribution. So to legally mitigate for filling in 550 acres of marsh near Lake Buena Vista (already surrounded by development) in order to build housing for Disney World, Disney bought an 8,500 acre cattle ranch along the Kissimmee River that was slated to experience suburban development, then donated it, along with millions of dollars, to the Nature Conservancy so the nonprofit could restore the land to wetland and native habitat. Three years later, the Orlando airport authority donated an adjoining 3,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy for similar restoration, to compensate for 736 acres of wetland eliminated to expand the airfield.
The 11,500 total acres then had their drainage closed. Introduced plants and trees were removed, controlled burns were begun, and native plantings were made. A decade and a half after these land swaps, the former cattle ranch had been restored to its primeval state, and its wetland filtering was improving the quality and quantity of water in the Everglades watershed. Red-cockaded woodpeckers were reintroduced to the preserve’s restored longleaf pines, hundreds of pairs of endangered wood storks bred among the bald cypress rimming Russell Lake, and the largest concentrations of bald eagles and sandhill cranes in the region took up residence.
Disney donated a total of $45 million over 20 years to create the Disney Wilderness Preserve. With its success, easements began to be purchased from other cattle ranches in the same watershed and donated to the Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits so that additional historic wetlands could be naturally rehydrated, while pasturing continued nearby. One of the largest wetland restorations in history is now under way, creating a decentralized “dispersed storage” solution to aid Florida’s water problems. Home to 1,000 species of plants and animals, the Disney Wilderness Preserve is also open to the public for recreational use.
- Nature Conservancy description, nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/florida/placesweprotect/the-disney-wilderness-preserve.xml