updated 7/31/2006 8:24:58 PM ET 2006-08-01T00:24:58

A working ranch and tens of thousands of acres of wilderness inhabited by bears, panthers and other species were handed over to the state Monday in Florida's biggest-ever purchase of land for environmental preservation.

The $350 million purchase of the Babcock Ranch, including $310 million in state money and $40 million from Lee County, puts nearly 74,000 largely undeveloped acres in southwestern Florida — or about 115 square miles — into state hands to be conserved.

It will create an almost unbroken stretch of brush and swamp wilderness extending from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is just an awesome day," said State Lands Director Eva Armstrong, who choked back tears before a ceremonial accepting of the deed from developer Syd Kitson.

The deal was hailed by several environmental groups.

About a year ago, Kitson and Partners bought the 91,000-acre property from the Babcock family, which had owned the ranch for nearly 100 years and had expressed a desire to have most of it preserved.

While selling most of the land to the state for the wildlife preserve, Kitson will retain 17,000 acres that will be developed as a new town he is promoting.

The town will include about 19,000 homes, but Kitson said it would be a "shining example of environmentally responsible development in the 21st century."

Sierra Club gets on board
While the majority of the state's conservation groups were behind the project, one, the Sierra Club, had challenged it over the density of the proposed town.

The group dropped its challenge after Kitson agreed to some changes to reduce the possibility of sprawl, made some wastewater treatment improvements and increased the size of a wildlife corridor.

"This is just terrific for the environment," said Audubon of Florida vice president Eric Draper. "Babcock Ranch is probably the most important — certainly the largest — investment Florida has ever made in protecting environmental lands."

The ranch itself will continue as a working cattle operation. Environmentalists said the ranch has been managed in an environmentally friendly way in the past.

"Today we celebrate not just the future for panthers and wood storks and spoon bills and other wildlife, but we also celebrate the future for working ranches as a part of Florida's economic future," Draper said.

Lee County Attorney David Owen also said the purchase would benefit not just the environment, but generations of Floridians. "This is for my children, this is for your children, this is for their children," Owen said.

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