For the better part of two decades, the state of Florida acted responsibly to preserve our natural resources and enhance our quality of life. Through our visionary land acquisition program, Preservation 2000, and its successor, Florida Forever, we have purchased and maintained some of the state’s most critically sensitive lands for habitat protection, water quality, water recharge, recreational activities and nature-based tourism.
While in the Florida House in 1999, it was my challenge to craft the Florida Forever program to continue the success of Preservation 2000 while adjusting to the need to manage the lands already purchased, to focus more on water resources and depleted water quality, and to allow greater public access. The successor program contained $300 million in annual funding to accomplish these goals. With our much-touted land acquisition and preservation efforts, Florida was the envy of the nation.
Under five governors, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, the promise was fulfilled and conservation and preservation funding was provided. As the economy took a hit, so too did Florida Forever funding — but with the expectation that as revenues increased so would its funding. But that didn’t happen.
Take last year as an example. While revenues rose and Florida experienced its largest budget to date, the $300 million Florida Forever program was given only $20 million. As a misguided gesture of goodwill, a provision was added that would allow an additional $50 million in acquisition authority if the state sold conservation lands already purchased and used those proceeds for “better” land purchases.
This scheme technically allowed the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to claim they allocated $70 million for land acquisition. The likelihood of having the money during the current year was slim: Potential lands needed to be identified and presented to the public for comment. Then the list needed refining and the state Cabinet had to approve, followed by an appraisal, resolution of legal and title issues, putting the lands on the auction block and their sale. Who would buy these lands? Would they be developed? Would we recoup our investment?
To be intellectually honest, the state funded just $20 million, only one-fifteenth of the $300 million intended, and then redirected funds meant for the Florida Forever trust fund.
Why did the environmental community agree to such an ill-conceived deal? Were they so hungry for $20 million that they were willing to lend credence to such an iffy proposition?
Don’t get me wrong. As the author of the Florida Forever bill, I anticipated and allowed for the surplus of lands that were not targeted for purchase or lands that no longer met a resource purpose. However, I never intended a “sell an acre to buy an acre” farce. The goal was to attain a net gain.
After the Department of Environmental Protection released its list of 169 proposed surplus sites totaling 5,331 acres in 67 state parks, forests and wildlife areas, the public spoke out in an attempt to save many of these areas. The list since has been trimmed some.
Audubon has identified seven properties on the department’s “scientifically reviewed” list that they believe are the most important to retain due to their significant value for water quality, wetlands, water recharge, wildlife habitat, and endangered species.
It’s difficult to imagine what kind of scientific review was employed by DEP. Also on the list are the Green Swamp management area and 2,628 acres of the 9,369-acre Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County.
And the 79-acre Porter Pond Tract in Florida’s Panhandle has a significant amount of pristine lakefront on a sand lake that has the potential of 40 inches of annual groundwater recharge.
With little faith in government to do the right thing, a grassroots effort sprang up to put the integrity of the state’s land acquisition program before the voters on the November 2014 ballot. A similar effort passed with overwhelming support decades earlier when the budget was almost half of what it is now. The Water and Land Conservation Amendment petition can be downloaded at: http://floridawaterlandlegacy.org/pages/168/important-in structions-for-download ing-the-petition/.
Those in office who claim to care about our quality of life should show it by restoring the full funding of $300 million to the popular and proven Florida Forever program by using the dedicated funding source of documentary stamps that rises with property sales.
How important is ensuring an adequate supply of life-sustaining water? Doesn’t it justify spending less than half of one percent of the $74 billion state budget?
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at email@example.com.