Home on the Range: Mormon Church is finding new ways to preserve wetlands and wildlife

Published: Tuesday, July 23 2013 10:00 p.m. MDT

Wildlife thrives on edges – alligators and shorebirds at water's edge, deer and turkey at woodlands edge. "We describe it as a mosaic of pastures, wetlands and woodlands," Jacobsen said.

Deseret's water ways

Besides shaping pastures with bigger woodland buffers and longer wetlands corridors, Deseret Ranches is moving land and creating waterways to both drain and retain water and tap into existing natural watercourses and centuries-old canals.

Ranch property manager James Payne underscores the area's ironic water issues, given Florida is a swampy, water-surrounded state and central Florida receives an average annual rainfall of 52 inches, mostly from June to October.

But, as Payne points out, without elevation variations and canyons, a flat Florida can't store water. Drenching rains either pool on pastures or mostly rush off into the St. John's River.

In addition donating land for the massive Taylor Creek Reservoir and selling 16,000 acres of riparian water at nominal rates, Deseret Ranches already has constructed a handful of retention reservoirs, such as the shallow, 500-acre Jug Island Reservoir, that enhances drainage and retention.

The reservoir allows the slow-moving waters to go through a natural water-treatment process to filter and reduce natural pollutants before the runoff waters advance to the St. John's. The reservoir also doubles as additional wetlands for wildlife and plant growth.

And ranch water-management practices focus on using surface water for irrigation, rather than pump from underground aquifers.

Always being watched

Deseret Ranches recently earned "best in region" honors from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for environmental stewardship and land management.

And ongoing cooperatives and community involvement range from working with local universities — particularly the University of Florida, the state's land-grant university — in a myriad of research, experimentation and application projects to hosting a popular annual rodeo and making its scenic Sun Grove area available for Scout and church youth camps.

But plaudits and successful performances in land and resource management aside, outside challenges come with the territory.

Surrounding counties and cities benefit from a tax-paying, non-subsidized, profitable ranch providing jobs, commercial interactions, community benefits and wide-open spaces, but they can't help but see those wide-open spaces as target areas for urban growth.

Wildlife groups and enthusiasts love what Deseret Ranches has done to enhance the numbers and health of many endangered and threatened species, but they can't help but want even more stringent protections and designations on the property.

And water utilities and users enjoy the water-quality efforts and storage capabilities provided by Deseret Ranches, but they can't help but want to take more water from off the ranch.

But Deseret Ranches wants to preserve most of its property as a multi-use operation in coming decades, not to turn over tens of thousands of acres for community development. It wants to avoid losing property use and control to restrictive wildlife-preservation designations. And it wants to retain enough control and use of its water resources to continue its extensive, ongoing agricultural purpose.

"As a ranch, we're trying to cooperate with the regional Water Management District and trying to make this all work," said Payne, adding that cooperation is needed to needed for long-term water-supply solutions.

So it is with land and wildlife issues as well. Rather than be acted upon, Deseret Ranch wants a proverbial seat at the table so that its future is in harmony with its neighbors' future, rather than a casualty because of it.

"The ranch creates a diverse environment for everything from agriculture to wildlife to ground-water recharging," said Jacobsen, the Florida native who once was a Deseret unit foreman and later returned to oversee the entire ranch operation. "The whole concept of creating a diverse landscape is that it allows multi-use philosophies, from a profitable cattle ranch to a diverse habitat for wildlife."

And the goal of good property stewardship is long-term decisions than increase and enhance sustainability, he added.

"We tend to look at the next 50 years, and not the next quarter."

EMAIL: staylor@desnews.com

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