Arrayed in row after row of tall, skinny slash pines, vast tracts of timberland have dominated the triangle between Jacksonville, Lake City and Gainesville for more than 100 years. The landowners, dating back to the Owens-Illinois and Georgia Pacific forest product companies, kept the area rural by keeping it in trees.
Today, these tracts are owned by Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber. The publicly held real estate investment trust entered Florida in 2001, when it merged with Georgia-Pacific's Timber Co.
Plum Creek owns 590,000 acres stretching into 22 of the state's 67 counties. As such, it crowns Florida Trend's list of the top 10 private landowners in Florida.
Combined, the 10 companies own more than 5,000 square miles of Florida — roughly one-tenth of the state's total land area. The large privately owned swaths are vital to Florida's future — from their environmental importance for protecting the state's freshwater resources and wildlife habitats to their economic significance for preserving agriculture and developing new business sectors.
"Florida's got a very unique asset in these large tracts because almost every single subject of interest to the state right now is crucial on these lands," said Alan Reynolds, CEO and chairman of southwest Florida engineering firm WilsonMiller.
Like Plum Creek, most of the companies on the top 10 list plan to remain primarily agricultural businesses — whether raising cattle in Central Florida, growing sugarcane and citrus in the southern part of the state or planting trees in the north. In addition to use for lumber and pulp, pines grown by Plum Creek, St. Joe Co., Foley Timber, Rayonier Timber and others soon will become part of the biofuels boom, feeding biomass-burning plants slated for southern Georgia, Gainesville and elsewhere.
But most of these land barons are also moving to develop strategic pieces of their Florida holdings. Plum Creek's plans include an inland port in Lake City, a community development north of Gainesville and a master plan for 70,000 acres in Alachua County east of Gainesville, where the company wants to engage residents to develop an economic and conservation plan unique in Florida's development history. Other big landowners' plans range from mixed-use developments to logistics centers and sites for alternative-energy crops and firms.
The projects coincide with what may be the biggest rewrite of Florida's growth-management law in its 25 years on the books. "The question," Reynolds said, "is whether the state is going to be able and willing to accommodate the big ideas."
One concern shared by all the landowners is the issue of "predictability" — beginning with confidence that they will be able to continue large-scale agricultural operations in an increasingly urban state. Erik Jacobsen, manager at the Mormon Church's Deseret Ranch, which stretches from eastern Orange County 50 miles south to Brevard County, said the church is committed to continue cattle ranching and farming on most of its land. But development in the surrounding Central Florida region creates constant pressure. Most threatening at the moment are bids by various cities and counties and the St. Johns River Water Management District to move water off the ranch for use in urban areas.
"We're committed to preserving all the things we love about Central Florida and to preserving the agricultural heritage of the land, but in return we need some certainty, including the certainty that we'll have the water we need to irrigate," Jacobsen said.
The landholders want a different kind of predictability for the slices they intend to develop: They want to be able to do long-term planning now, with certainty that the rules won't change as they move to carry out projects when economic conditions are right.
"Florida's growth-management laws were not written with major landowners in mind," said Bo Taff, vice president for planning at Perry-based Foley Timber. The company owns 562,000 acres of timberland in five counties, including the vast majority of Taylor, where the firm has helped lead a community visioning and master planning process.
Another issue for the big landowners as they plot the future involves compensation for the environmental values of their land — particularly given the recent lack of funding for Florida Forever, a land-buy program that has protected more than 2 million acres of key habitat, water and other resources. At the Nature Conservancy, director of protection Keith Fountain said large landowners, governments and NGOs are increasingly turning to conservation easements, which can achieve the same objectives for less tax money. But even the easements are under fire in the current political climate, as evidenced by protests of the federal government's work to establish, through a series of easements, the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge south of Orlando.
Lykes Bros. CEO Howell Ferguson said Florida must find new models that compensate private companies for the environmental benefits they create, from capturing carbon to storing water or keeping it clean. As a model, he offers the Lykes West Waterhole project, which stores water on behalf of the South Florida Water Management District and removes phosphorous to keep pollution from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. An Audubon analysis found it cost taxpayers some $3 million, compared with an estimated $76 million for a traditional stormwater treatment area of similar size.
Many see promise in Florida's languishing Rural Lands Stewardship Program, in which development credits are swapped for preserving conservation and agricultural lands. In 2002, a group of southwest Florida's largest landowners, environmentalists and other stakeholders helped create the Collier County Rural Lands Stewardship Program, establishing credits to preserve conservation and agricultural lands. In the years since, the program has preserved about 55,000 acres in the region. About 17,000 of those acres were preserved in exchange for granting 5,000 acres of development rights — for the new town of Ave Maria — to a joint venture of Barron Collier Cos. and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.
But the Rural Lands Stewardship Program hasn't been used since, as the state Department of Community Affairs and stakeholders spent years debating new rules, which put projects on hold. That type of delay is one reason that Gov. Rick Scott has drawn a bull's-eye on the DCA. Scott wants to reorganize the department and move all but 40 of its 358 jobs to other agencies.
Scott's DCA secretary, Billy Buzzett, was vice president for strategic planning at St. Joe Co., which used another large-scale planning approach, "sector planning," to develop the company's 78,000-acre West Bay project.
Buzzett has recommended the Legislature expand sector planning, increase the minimum acreage allowed for such plans, and remove a requirement to demonstrate "need" for the development — a requirement that has held back projects such as Highlands County's Blue Head Ranch.
All stakeholders including the big landowners agree Florida needs better long-term-planning tools. One flaw in the West Bay project, for example, was that it relied on Florida Forever to purchase the 41,000 acres the project earmarked for conservation. But the Legislature hasn't funded Florida Forever for two years, and with future funding uncertain, the protection of those acres is in question, said Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. "We've learned that the conservation process needs to be in place up front," Pattison said.
Back in the pine woods of North Florida, Todd Powell, director of real estate at Plum Creek Timber, suggests that the days of conservation deals as big as Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida — which preserved 73,000 acres in a 92,000-acre project — are not over. That conservation purchase cost taxpayers $350 million. Powell and others say such deals are possible at far lower cost to taxpayers.
"These are not properties acquired at modern real estate values that need to make money tomorrow," Powell said. "Our business model allows us to be very patient. Working with large landowners, there are some really creative ways to solve Florida's conservation and economic development needs concurrently."
Cynthia Barnett is a senior writer for Florida Trend magazine, where this story appeared in April. Visit FloridaTrend.com for an interactive map showing the landowners' property and federal and state conservation property statewide.