Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $100 million in financial assistance to acquire permanent easements from eligible landowners in four counties and assist with wetland restoration on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades Watershed.

The wetland restoration will reduce the amount of surface water leaving the land, slowing water runoff and the concentration of nutrients entering the public water management system and ultimately Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

This is the largest amount of funding Florida has ever received for projects in the same watershed through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) in a single year.

 “Protecting and restoring the Northern Everglades is critical not just to Floridians, but to all Americans,” said Vilsack.

“Today’s announcement demonstrates the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to conserve our national treasures, enhance the quality and quantity of our water, and secure the economic opportunities afforded by a healthy Everglades ecosystem.

“This announcement would not be possible without our local conservation partners and our relationship with private landowners who play a critical role in restoring wetlands and protecting wildlife in this unique habitat.”

Vilsack also participated in a signing ceremony with A.J. Suarez of Hendry County Nursery Farms — a landowner who will benefit from the funding.

Suarez signed an agreement with USDA to start the process to acquire the easement rights to 3,782 acres.

After the signing ceremony, Vilsack toured the 550-acre Winding Waters Natural Area, a site restored with $1.5 million from WRP in 2007. The nature area, owned by Palm Beach County, is home to bird species such as little blue heron, snowy egret and great egret, white ibis and Florida sandhill crane.

It also contains large areas of pine flatwoods, Cyprus forests, freshwater marshes and wet prairies.

Under WRP, landowners sell development rights to land and place it in a conservation easement that permanently maintains that land as agriculture and open space.