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Water District notifies Feds: Refuge lease in violation

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The inability of federal officials to control invasive plants, has cast uncertainty over the future of Palm Beach County’s only National Wildlife Refuge.

In a surprise move, the South Florida Water Management District on Thursday, issued a notice of default to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Water District says the federal agency is in violation of its lease of the interior of Everglades Water Conservation Area 1. The watery 141,000 acres forms the heart of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Stretching from west of Wellington to west of Boca Raton, Loxahatchee Refuge is home to Palm Beach County’s portion of the remaining natural Everglades.

The Water District has leased the state land to the Wildlife Service for 65 years.

But the Water District’s governing board voted unanimously to fire off a letter to the feds, informing them they’re failing to fulfill their legal obligation to control harmful non-native plants.

The Water District released photos showing the problematic Old World Climbing Fern smothering tree islands and other native vegetation in the Refuge.

The District’s action is the first step in what could ultimately result in removal of the Fish and Wildlife Service from the Refuge.

Water Board member Jim Moran said the District had worked in vain in recent years, to get the feds to do their job.

“We’re hoping (this) will give our federal partners the incentive to be able to come up with the money to eradicate the exotics in the refuge and save the environment out there,” said Moran.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, agreed the exotic plant problem at the Refuge is out of hand, but he said Congress has been hostile to the Fish and Wildlife Service, cutting its budget.

“The sad thing about what happened today is the Water Management District is saying, ‘We may just take the land back from you,’” said Draper.

“So it would no longer be a National Wildlife Refuge-- that would be tragic,” Draper added.

Reached by phone, Assistant Loxahatchee Refuge Manager Rolf Olson said the District’s move came as a surprise. He acknowledged problems with exotic plant removal, but said the Wildlife Service is doing a good job overall and wants to stay.

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