As a conservation scientist who has been involved in Florida wildlife and ecosystem conservation for the last 25 years, I have witnessed many conservation successes through the hard work of many and the far-sighted policy of our state leaders in the past. However, the long-term success of our accomplishments is currently endangered by the intransigence of the Florida Legislature regarding funding our renowned conservation land protection program, Florida Forever.
This trend of grossly underfunding land protection started in 2009 after several decades of strong bipartisan effort to fund these efforts, and if this continues many iconic landscapes, critical wildlife habitat, and lands essential for providing clean and sufficient water, flood control, storm protection, clean air, and recreation opportunities will be lost forever.
From 1990 through 2008, Florida Forever and its predecessor, Preservation 2000, averaged $314 million a year in funding for conservation land acquisition. However, from 2009 to 2016, Florida Forever averaged only $11 million a year. With $300 million a year as the standard for full funding, since 2009 Florida Forever has received only 3.6 percent of its intended budget ($86.3 million allocated versus $2.4 billion).
In comparison, since 2009 the budget of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has been approximately $10 billion a year and $80 billion total. Though legislators argued they could not fund Florida Forever during the recession, the FDOT budget makes clear that this was a matter of political will, and not money.
Furthermore, since the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative Constitutional Amendment passed in 2014, with 75 percent of Florida voters approving the amendment, there has been approximately $750 million a year available to fund Florida Forever as well as other conservation land protection, management, and restoration programs. The primary goal of this amendment was to ensure that Florida Forever would again be funded for at least $300 million a year to appropriately combat the significant increase in development pressure.
However, since the amendment passed, the Legislature has thumbed its nose at voters — and the Florida Constitution — funding Florida Forever for only $15.2 million the last two years. Now the recession is over and Florida is again growing at a rate of approximately 365,000 people a year, rural land is being rapidly lost to development, and hundreds of thousands of new acres of proposed development have been approved in our current lax growth management environment.
So, what might have been protected if Florida Forever received full funding over the last eight years as the authors of the law, including Gov. Jeb Bush, had intended? If we had that $2.4 billion and assume a general average of $4,000 an acre for protection costs, we could have protected approximately 600,000 acres of land or even more given very low land costs during the recession. For comparison the Ocala National Forest in central Florida north of Orlando is approximately 500,000 acres. There is currently approximately 2.4 million acres of land waiting for protection on the Florida Forever list. That means if we had fully funded Florida Forever we would have protected a full 25 percent of the lands essential for conservation.
Florida Forever projects include lands essential for protecting Florida's iconic watersheds including the Everglades, St. Johns River, Suwannee River, and the Apalachicola River. It includes spring-shed protection zones for many of our most important springs across the state, including Silver Spring, Rainbow Springs, and Wakulla Springs. It includes essential wildlife habitat for thousands of native species that are rapidly declining because of Florida's rapid over-development. It includes increasingly rare natural communities such as longleaf pine forests, Florida scrub, dry prairie, maritime hammocks and south Florida rocklands.
And it includes coastal ecosystems that provide habitat for fish and shellfish as well as storm protection and water quality in our estuaries including the Indian River Lagoon and Charlotte Harbor. But none of these lands have been protected over the last eight years, and may never be, because the Legislature has failed to fund Florida Forever.
This is something that we all have the power to change by both contacting our legislators and by the way we vote in the next election. Let them know that protecting Florida's water, wildlife, and quality of life is at least as important as maintaining and adding to our built infrastructure. This includes essential services such as clean and sufficient water, storm protection, flood control and clean air, but it also serves as the foundation of our existing and future economy, including protecting a sustainable economy that includes millions of visitors who come to Florida to enjoy our natural bounty — not traffic jams and endless sprawl.
We can accomplish these goals, but it won't happen if our Legislature continues to grossly underfund Florida Forever, one of keystones to a successful, vital, and sustainable Florida future.
Tom Hoctor is the director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida.