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Florida’s land conservation program crawls back from the dead

Orlando Sentinel

Posted 12/12/2012

TALLAHASSEE, FLA — It isn’t exactly a roaring recovery. But Florida’s once-heralded land conservation program is creeping back from the dead.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet signed off on a list of 21 conservation projects Tuesday that the state Department of Environmental Protection will attempt to buy with $8.4 million lawmakers tucked in the budget this year.

That’s chump change compared to the $300 million annually to preserve endangered species habitat, lands and waters. Over the last two decades, the program preserved some 2.5 million acres. But that was before the collapse of the housing bubble wiped out documentary stamp tax collections on real estate transactions that had powered the program.

And environmental groups plan to push for a much larger kick-start to the program next year.

Thanks to a recession that left its funding drained and a Legislature and governor more fixated on kick-starting construction than blocking development on threatened green spaces and waters, the Florida Forever land-buying program has been shuttered for the last two years.

But with the economy starting to recover and a grassroots campaign aiming to ask voters to re-constitute the program, policymakers are also giving conservation-buying another look.

“Everybody is going to start coming back now thinking this is their time,” said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “I think it’s a reasonable expectation.”

But instead of projects with the greatest environmental resources endangered, the state is shifting gears to focus exclusively on projects that protect water quality, provide buffers to military bases, or are already substantially complete.

So the new-look program will try to buy an easement on the Adams Ranch in Osceola County, preserve First magnitude springs around the state, and the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway in Lake County.

This summer, the state is set to pay off old bonds issued through Florida Forever’s predecessor program, Preservation 2000, which was launched by then-Gov. Bob Graham. Environmental groups are arguing that frees up $250 million in potential revenue going to retire that debt that could now be put back into conservation.

Environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and Audubon of Florida plan to push for at least $100 million in new revenues in the 2013 legislative session that starts in March.

‘We think that anything less than $100 million means they are not serious about the program,” said Audubon of Florida director Eric Draper. “Were not trying to be greedy, but we are trying to kick-start the program.”

DEP has proposed putting $50 million into the program next year, through the sale of existing lands that are less valuable for conservation. Scott vetoed a similar idea in 2011, and conservation groups generally don’t like the idea, either.

“The priorities for me are to make sure we have enough money for education, but we want to protect our environment,” Scott told reporters.

The lobbying push also comes as environmental groups and Graham push a 2014 constitutional amendment, called the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign, to dedicate a portion of doc stamp taxes to water and land conservation.

An organizer said Tuesday the group was close to collecting enough signatures to trigger Florida Supreme Court review of the amendment.

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