When Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a proposal this month to revive Florida's popular environmental land-buying program, to the tune of $150 million a year, the news caught Greg Brock off guard.
"I was kind of shocked," said Brock, who recently retired from the Division of State Lands.
That's because Scott's administration has spent the past three years dismantling the division of the Department of Environmental Protection that's in charge of assessing and acquiring environmental land, according to Brock and other former DEP employees.
Their funding was cut, their staffing numbers were trimmed back, and their focus was shifted away from buying property to trying to get rid of it, they said.
"There was a marked challenge to reduce the division to the very minimal amount of people you could operate with," said Mike Long, who rose to acting division director before he quit in 2012.
The remaining employees were told that their objective "was changing from a goal of protecting conservation land to more of 'We own land and we can't afford to manage it, so we should look around for buyers,' " Long said.
Scott's DEP proposed, and the Legislature authorized, a drive in 2013 to sell off $50 million worth of its park and preserve property and then use the money raised to buy more land. The proposed sell-off created statewide controversy as waves of people objected. The DEP ended up abandoning the effort without having sold a single parcel.
"That was just crazy," said Judy Warrick, who retired this year after 15 years, 10 of which she spent piecing together a complex series of land deals for a major Everglades restoration project covering 50,000 acres. "They didn't perceive that it was as important as it was to the public."
DEP press secretary Tiffany Cowie said the agency is still keenly interested in buying land.
"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is committed to buying valuable conservation lands across the state," Cowie said.
Before Scott took office, Warrick said, 40 people worked at the DEP buying land as part of the politically popular Florida Forever program. But many of them left via resignation or early retirement because they did not like the direction taken by the Scott administration. One, Jim Farr, joked that if he'd stayed, he'd be facing homicide charges.
DEP records show the acquisition and real estate services staff now consists of 14 people. Former DEP employees say the number is actually in single digits but that repeated division reorganizations have disguised just how deep the cuts have been.
But Cowie said changes made to the lands division only reduced duplication, and "current staffing numbers are generally consistent with previous years."
Beginning in 1990, using programs such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, Florida invested $300 million a year in buying environmentally sensitive land. The money came from bonds repaid by the sale of documentary stamps on real estate transactions. The land-buying programs assembled a diverse collection of swamps, forests, beaches and other parks and preserves, which was popular with the public.
But then a backlash began, with critics in the Legislature complaining that the government owns too much land. Government agencies own more than 25 percent of the 34.2 million acres in Florida, a figure that includes not only parks, but also prisons, military bases, college campuses and other uses.
During Florida's recent economic meltdown, real estate sales dwindled, and the Legislature cut the funding. Even when there was still a few million dollars for buying land, though, "we had a secretary who didn't want to spend any of it," said Brock, who spent nearly 30 years with the DEP. Instead, top officials assigned the land-buying staff "mind-boggling things" that seemed designed to be mere make-work projects, he said.
In public, the man whom Scott picked as his DEP agency head in January 2011, Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr., touted the value of the state's parks and preserves. But behind closed doors, he was less enthusiastic, the former employees said.
Vinyard's lack of enthusiasm went public last year in a very dramatic fashion, they said, when phosphate mining giant Mosaic — as part of a legal settlement with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups — offered to hand over to the state for free a $4 million parcel.
The 4,100-acre Peaceful Horse Ranch was already on the state's acquisition list. It lies along 7 miles of the Peace River, where the woods and wetlands are full of bald eagles, gopher tortoises, wood storks, sandhill cranes and ospreys.
In an unprecedented move, the DEP told Mosaic no thanks. Vinyard said his experts had looked over the ranch and "determined the property was not appropriate to take on as a state park."
That wasn't the only parcel rejected — just the one that garnered headlines, said Farr, who served as staff director of the state's Acquisition and Restoration Council until he took early retirement. The council sets the priorities for which land will be bought.
"We weren't allowed to accept donations of in-holdings in the Everglades and Lake Wales Ridge areas, even though we would be getting for free something that would make it easier to manage the state lands we already owned," he said.
Meanwhile, Farr said, Vinyard was "slowly dismantling the land acquisition division."
That's why hearing Scott's proposal to revive the land-buying effort — albeit at half of the funding level that it once enjoyed — was such a shock to Brock and the others.
"But it's an election year," Brock said, chuckling. "I guess anything can happen."
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.