Government and Nonprofit Partners Complete Significant Agreement to Protect Critical Manatee Habitat on Florida’s Gulf Coast

July 27, 2010

endangered manatee

Endangered manatee at Crystal River. Photo by Amanda Cotton/

Crystal River, Fla. — In a major conservation deal completed today, nearly 58 acres of critical habitat for the endangered West Indian (Florida) manatee are now preserved from development and will be managed as a wildlife refuge. The complicated agreement was more than two years in the making, and involved a private landowner, several local and national conservation groups, public and private funders, and local, regional, state and federal government agencies. The agreement is considered a win not only for critically endangered manatees, which assemble within the springs of the property – known as Three Sisters Springs – for calving and feeding during the winter months and critical cold fronts, but also for the tourism economy of Crystal River and Florida’s “Nature Coast” on the Gulf.

A multi-year effort involving numerous public and private partners, the project protects a 57.8-acre property in Crystal River that contains five pristine springs. Each winter more than 150 manatees gather at the springs’ warm, turquoise waters to rest, breed and calve. Visitors from all over the world travel to the area to see the manatees, providing a boon to the local economy and an opportunity to educate visitors about the ecosystem needs of the imperiled manatee population, which are met in part by the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Three Sisters Springs was the National Wildlife Refuge System’s top land conservation priority in the Southeast and its critical importance to manatees was highlighted during last winter’s cold spell,” said Cindy Dohner, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Sam Hamilton, the late Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would have been so proud to see this conservation effort come to fruition as a result of great partnerships and old-fashioned tenacity.”

Both conservationists and developers have been eying the property for decades. Situated in an urban area completely surrounded by development, the property had been zoned for 400 homes. In 2005 The Conservation Fund, a national land and water conservation organization, started working with the landowner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), the City of Crystal River, the Friends of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the Save the Manatee Club to find a conservation outcome for the property, structure the deal and secure funding.

“We finally did it,” said Matt Sexton, vice president of The Conservation Fund. “This complex transaction required careful orchestration, but the overwhelming support kept it going. We’re thankful to all of our partners, especially those donors who provided support to The Conservation Fund, the landowners, for their patience and commitment to seeing this property preserved, and the community, who saw this as the last chance to protect the city’s namesake.”

“The protection of Three Sisters Springs is a triumph of partnership in support of wildlife conservation and economic development,” said David Houghton, the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s Vice President of Conservation Programs. “Today, the future of the West Indian manatee is more secure and the economic future of Crystal River brighter because a diverse group of individuals and organizations rallied around a common vision.”

Today’s agreement transfers the land to the City of Crystal River and SWFWMD. The state’s Florida Communities Trust program will hold a conservation easement on the site, and the city and SWFWMD will enter into an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which will manage the property as an addition to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. SWFWMD will construct flow through wetlands to capture and treat urban runoff now directly entering canals adjacent to the property, which, along with the main springs, are critical cold weather manatee habitats.

Funding for the $10.5 million project came from a variety of sources: $3.3 million in federal funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North America Wetlands Conservation Act, secured with the help of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; nearly $5 million in state funding from the Florida Forever / Florida Communities Trust program and SWFWMD; $300,000 from the City of Crystal River, Citrus County and the Citrus County Tourist Development Council; and nearly $2 million through the fundraising efforts of The Conservation Fund, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Friends of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Save the Manatee Club, the Felburn Foundation, Jane’s Trust and many individuals in the local community. The Brunckhorst Foundation and the Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation provided additional support.

Additional Information

Note to media: Additional information about Three Sisters Springs is available online. To download facts about the project and the Florida manatee, click here. For quotes from government officials, experts and supporters, click here. Photos and maps are also available by contacting any of the contacts listed at the top of the release.

About The Conservation Fund
At The Conservation Fund, we combine a passion for conservation with an entrepreneurial spirit to protect your favorite places before they become just a memory. A hallmark of our work is our deep, unwavering understanding that for conservation solutions to last, they need to make economic sense. Top-ranked, we have protected more than 7 million acres across America.


About the National Wildlife Refuge Association

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge Association is to conserve America’s wildlife heritage for future generations through strategic programs that protect, enhance, and expand the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Three Sisters Springs project is part of NWRA’s Beyond the Boundaries Program, which helps refuges work in partnership to protect the ecological integrity of landscapes that surround and support the National Wildlife Refuge System. NWRA works across the U.S. to conserve the most biologically sensitive landscapes, enlisting the support of local citizens and diverse state and federal partners. In addition, NWRA provides training and guidance to more than 250 local refuge “Friends” volunteer groups that are vital to creating public support for national wildlife refuges and wildlife conservation.

About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

Press Release Contacts

Ann Simonelli | The Conservation Fund | 703-908-5809 |

Kathy Westra, National Wildlife Refuge Association, (202) 258-6661,
Jeffrey Fleming, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (404) 679-7287,

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