The 4,100-acre Peaceful Horse Ranch lies along seven miles of the Peace River, its banks thick with sabal palms, cypress and live oak, its woods and wetlands full of bald eagles, gopher tortoises, wood storks, sandhill cranes and ospreys.
Three years ago, Florida officials added that land to the list of environmentally sensitive properties they wanted to acquire. But the ranch was valued at $14 million, a steep price at a time when the state Legislature had cut back money for the state's land-buying program. Then a phosphate mining company bought it.
Last year, the state caught a break. The phosphate company, as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups, agreed to hand it over to the state for free. Mosaic mining officials would even throw in $2 million for upkeep.
But to the surprise of both Mosaic and the environmentalists who sued it, the state has said no thanks.
"They decided they were not in a position to take it at this time," Mosaic phosphate spokeswoman Martha Monfried said.
Why would the Department of Environmental Protection turn down free land?
"Crazy, huh?" said Beverly Griffiths, who chairs the Sierra Club Tampa Bay Group, the lead plaintiff in the legal settlement with Mosaic.
She said DEP officials had told her group that they were hampered by legislative budget cuts: "They said they didn't have the money to restore it and maintain it and build the facilities that would be needed to make it a state park."
However, DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said it wasn't the money. Instead, he said the agency's own high standards convinced him to turn down the donation. The DEP's park experts toured the ranch, he said, and "determined the property was not appropriate to take on as a state park."
"We have very high standards for our visitors' experience," said Donald Forgione a 29-year DEP veteran who heads up the award-winning state park system. "While there might be a need to conserve it, it doesn't lend itself to becoming a state park at this time."
In June 2010, though, the DEP was eager to get hold of the ranch — roughly as big as Fort De Soto Park and the Weedon Island Preserve combined.
A four-page DEP document explained why the ranch qualified for purchase in 2010, talking about the "largely pristine" shore along the Peace River, the 5 miles that lie along equally pristine Horse Creek — the river's main tributary — and how it would be an ideal location for canoeing, kayaking, camping and horseback riding for visitors seeking "beautiful vistas along the river."
The Peace River, which provides drinking water for residents of Sarasota, Charlotte and De Soto counties, needs protection against pollution that flows out of developed land, the DEP listing noted. Buying the ranch property would keep it from being developed and also create a new state park that could be linked with nearby Myakka River State Park, the DEP reported.
But now the ranch's proximity to other state parks is a strike against it, according to Vinyard. The ranch is also near Paynes Creek Historic State Park in Hardee County, which doesn't draw many visitors.
"We don't want to harm other parks," Vinyard said.
The ranch wound up in Mosaic's hands after its owners went bankrupt and the phosphate giant bought it for $10 million.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups had sued to block Mosaic's planned expansion of a mine on the border of Hardee and Polk counties that would produce 30 percent of the rock that its Florida plants process into diammonium phosphate fertilizer. The mine expansion would have destroyed 534 acres of wetlands.
To clear the way for mining, Mosaic agreed to donate the ranch to DEP for a state park. Because the property was on the list for purchase, no one asked DEP if it wanted the property.
Two decades ago, property rights advocates frequently contended that regulations and lawsuits were not the right way to save environmentally sensitive land. Instead, they said, the state should buy the land outright, guaranteeing the preservation of both the environment and the owner's rights.
Using programs called Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, the state has spent millions of dollars assembling an impressive collection of swamps, forests, beaches and other parks and preserves.
But now a backlash has begun, with critics in the Legislature complaining that the government owns too much of Florida. Local, state and federal government agencies own more than 25 percent of the 34.2 million acres of land in Florida — although that includes not only parks but also prisons, military bases, college campuses and other uses.
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has filed SB 584, which would forbid local and state government agencies from buying any more conservation land unless they sell off an equal amount. While Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget calls for spending $75 million on buying Florida Forever land, $50 million of that would come from selling off existing state land.
As for the Peaceful Horse Ranch, the terms of settlement say that if the DEP rejects it, the property goes to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental group.
"It's an extraordinary piece of property," said Andrew McElwaine of the conservancy. "I want to get it into a preserve as quickly as possible." He said officials from another state agency, the Division of Forestry, have expressed interest in turning it into a state forest, even though "it's mostly open pasture."
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]