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Perspective: How much land to protect?

Bluehead Ranch, one of the many currently unprotected Florida Forever projects, is important for protecting the headwaters of Fisheating Creek, the health of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, habitat for Florida panther and Florida black bear. It is one of the largest remaining private expanses of dry prairie, an endangered ecosystem supporting many listed species, left in Florida.

Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr., carltonward.com

Bluehead Ranch, one of the many currently unprotected Florida Forever projects, is important for protecting the headwaters of Fisheating Creek, the health of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, habitat for Florida panther and Florida black bear. It is one of the largest remaining private expanses of dry prairie, an endangered ecosystem supporting many listed species, left in Florida.

When it comes to conserving Florida's natural and rural lands, a simple question arises — how much is enough? How much land needs to be protected to save Florida's ecosystems?

The short answer? More than is currently protected. The long answer? It's complicated, so keep reading.

The issue takes on added importance as the Legislature decides how to spend Amendment 1 money. Supporters of the measure, which passed with 75 percent of the vote, say they intended that the money from documentary stamp revenue would be used to acquire important conservation land (or its development rights) to protect it from development.

But some politicians claim that Florida already has enough conservation land or that there isn't a plan for additional protection needs. They are wrong on both counts.

Florida currently has about 10 million acres, or 29 percent, of its land in protected public and private lands managed compatibly with conservation, with the majority of it in vast acreages of wetlands and federal lands including Everglades National Park and Florida's many military reservations.

Protecting almost all Florida Forever lands on the current project list would add an additional 2 million acres and raise the protected percentage to approximately 35 percent. But Florida's extensive research on conservation priorities makes it very clear that additional land protection beyond current Florida Forever projects is essential for achieving our conservation goals.

These are not wild-eyed guesses. For more than three decades, Florida has led the nation in science-based conservation planning regarding identifying the areas most important for protecting Florida's biodiversity and ecosystems.

Floridians and our political leaders need to keep in mind that protecting our green infrastructure is just as important as providing and maintaining our gray infrastructure, that is, our transportation, residential, commercial and industrial land uses and systems. Green infrastructure is a collective term encompassing the knowledge that biodiversity produces services including clean and sufficient surface water, water recharge, storm protection, flood control, clean air, food and fiber, fish and shellfish production, and nature-based recreation worth billions of dollars every year.

Through cooperative efforts among state universities, state agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners, we have engaged in a series of scientific assessments over the years to identify Florida's biodiversity and ecosystem conservation priorities. This conservation science and planning coincided with both the start of Florida's growth management efforts and Florida's two land conservation programs, Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. Both programs were heavily influenced by Florida's wealth of conservation science expertise and collectively protected more than 2 million acres of land from 1990 until 2009.

Though those acres represent very important progress toward achieving the goal of protecting Florida's conservation priority areas, the science makes clear that there are still many unprotected acres essential for conservation and to sustain human populations. This includes the 2 million acres of land still waiting on the Florida Forever list, and many additional high-priority areas identified as essential for wildlife habitat, wildlife corridors and natural resources including our water supply.

So where does this put us regarding the future of Florida conservation and the claim that Florida already has "enough" conservation lands? And how does it relate to scientific estimates of land needed to effectively protect biodiversity and ecosystem services? Or, in other words, "How much is enough"? Scientists have been investigating this question for at least the last half-century, and the research and discussion continue to be better informed as conservation science continues to advance.

"How much is enough?" depends on a number of factors including geography, climate, habitat diversity, endemism (species found only within a specified region and not anywhere else, and parts of Florida are important centers of endemism), and level of conversion to development.

In short, the answer could be any where from 25 percent to 75 percent of a state or region, though this collective body of work has also suggested that approximately 50 percent of a region's land in conservation (this includes a range of lands from natural to working landscapes such as ranches and silviculture) is a general benchmark for sufficient protection of our natural resources and to sustain human populations.

As a starting point, we need to use Amendment 1 to revitalize the funding of our landmark Florida Forever program. There is no legitimate, science-based or economic argument against returning Florida Forever to a minimum annual funding of $300 million a year. At current land prices and $300 million a year, Florida Forever might protect approximately 750,000 acres per decade, though protected acres would diminish as land prices continue to increase. That means we have many decades ahead of conservation land protection to achieve our science-based conservation goals.

In addition, the majority of our future conservation land protection can be done using conservation easements (selling development rights), which keeps the land in private hands where the landowner is responsible for management. And Florida Forever is a willing seller program, which means instead of attempting to rely on regulations to protect ecosystems, landowners voluntarily agree to sell their land or the development rights on their land to protect its conservation values.

Florida Forever and similar programs like the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program are by far the most effective tools we have to ensure functional ecosystems are protected. This is especially true now that Florida's growth management program has been largely dismantled, while Florida is now again growing at the rate of over 350,000 people per year and losing at least 75,000 acres of rural land to new intensive development per year.

The overwhelming message from Floridian voters' approval of Amendment 1 is that they see these same trends and want a very strong conservation land protection effort to ensure that Florida's most important lands for conservation are protected before they are lost to development. Now the Legislature needs to listen and act accordingly.

Tom Hoctor is the director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Perspective: How much land to protect? 04/23/15 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2015 5:58pm]
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