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Florida Forever conservation program hangs in the balance

Florida has always measured growth by population and housing booms, not by land left undeveloped. Ranching scenes like this one don't make tourist postcards, but they are important for the future of the state's wildlife and water — and hence, for all of us. And they are increasingly under threat. Florida Forever has a chance to save places like this, keeping them in private hands yet not paved over. Though it's not clear if legislators see the promise of acting now— or more important, the peril of waiting.

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At the Adams Ranch in Osceola County, fourth-generation rancher John Adams ambles forward, dips the fire torch for a controlled burn, then moves on to the next spot and does it again. Cowboy Murray Harvey rides Termite, a quarter horse, and occasionally flicks a lit match to the ground. Controlled burns are a common land management practice in Florida. The Adamses use them to clear the fields for cattle grazing and to reduce wildfire risks.

Their ranch is one of the largest in the United States with 40,000 acres spread across four counties. About 8,000 acres of the Osceola operation has been on the Florida Forever priority wish list to preserve through a conservation easement since 2007. Such easements pay the landowner never to develop the land, though it remains in private hands.

It's also in the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area; rain that falls there feeds into the Everglades. But less than 10 percent of the Adams Ranch has been protected so far.

State political and financial support for land conservation has diminished. Florida Forever, a state conservation program that buys land or development rights, has seen its annual funding drop from a peak of $300 million in 2009 to $8 million in 2012. There was a touch of optimism this year among environmentalists after Gov. Rick Scott proposed an increase to $75 million.

There's a catch. Scott wants to sell state land to pay for new conservation purchases. So does Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who filed SB 584, which would not allow local, county and state agencies to buy conservation land unless an equal amount of public property is sold. Such strict policy may not bode well for the future of Florida's rural landscapes.

"This ranch is not the biggest ranch in Florida, it's not the oldest ranch in Florida, it's probably not the best ranch in Florida," said John Adams' grandfather, Alto "Bud" Adams Jr., 86. "But it is a big, old, good ranch. And it is large enough that it is a complete ecosystem for our deer, our turkey, our wildlife and that sort of thing.

"And it is important that it not be broken into a thousand pieces."

Florida Forever conservation program hangs in the balance 03/23/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 25, 2013 1:02pm]

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