Dec. 3, 2011
Florida Forever protects a legacy
By Margaret McPherson
It was a relief to hear thoughtful and constructive discussion at November's Florida Cabinet meeting indicating that not only is Florida Forever still operational, but the future of public conservation lands may not be as dark as some had feared.
As Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam observed, "We have traditionally measured success of our land programs by how many acres we buy, because there has always been plenty of money. Well, now the money is gone and we've got to get more creative about how we continue to fund these programs that all of us are proud of."
The 113 properties on the Florida Forever "wish list" reflect the priorities of five previous administrations and the booming economies that blessed Florida through most of the last 20 years. Purchasing all 1.9 million acres would cost $11 billion dollars.
Clay Smallwood, the new director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of State Lands, was correct during his Cabinet presentation when he said, "In this economy it is not feasible or prudent for us to consider purchasing every piece of land on this list." And since the conservation community needs to keep it real, I'll be the first to publicly admit that, over the years, properties have been added to that list that Floridians shouldn't buy even if the economy were robust.
Smallwood went out of his way to stress to the Cabinet the role of public lands in ensuring clean and sufficient water supplies, preserving the health of estuaries and other critical natural resources, and the value of protecting the economic driver of our ecotourism industry. If those conservation ethics hold firm as discussions continue, Florida's conservation programs will take some constructive steps forward.
"We've had some fear that the economy was going to be an excuse to eliminate the state's conservation lands program," the Florida Wildlife Federation's Manley Fuller confessed. He said almost all of the lands acquired through this program are valuable, but that most of the recommendations in the Bureau of State Lands' Disposition of State Lands and Facilities Annual Report make good conservation sense. "It identifies some practical changes necessary for the program's future," he said, "but the program does have a future - and a strategy I think we can work with."
We're not out of the woods yet. For its 2011-12 legislative budget, DEP is requesting $15 million. It's a far cry from the annual $300 million in bonded funding of yesteryear. Last year, the Legislature did approve a token budget for the program based solely on the sale of surplus lands, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.
Hopefully the governor is learning that public conservation lands are not a luxury - that they are a necessity that sustains irreplaceable plant and animal communities while guaranteeing cost-effective places to store and treat the state's water supplies.
"A decade ago nobody wanted to talk about conservation easements, and now they may be our only way to continue our preservation strategy," Putnam said.
Easements are a tool for stretching state dollars, enabling more land to be protected at lower prices. Conservation easements also mean the state does not incur ongoing land management costs. While easement lands are kept on the tax rolls, they also keep agriculture in production and safeguard the environmental services on which Floridians depend.
The Nature Conservancy's Janet Bowman is hopeful that the proposed budget would allow Florida to pull federal money into the program. Even this thrifty allocation could keep the state eligible for federal programs – partnerships that grant the state money for lands around military bases and help restoration efforts such as the $100 million gained from the federal Farm Bill for the Northern Everglades.
So, step up, Floridians and let your state lawmakers and Gov. Scott know how much you value land conservation. You can explore the images of the 2012 Florida Forever Conservation Photography Calendar and 36 other properties from previous calendars at www.linc.us. Most of these private properties have never been seen by the general public, and your support for their protection is vital.
Margaret McPherson is executive director of the Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture (LINC). LINC's mission is to celebrate and protect Florida's natural and cultural heritage through art. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.