After publishing the fourth edition of the Florida Forever Conservation Photography Calendar, we were relieved to hear the constructive discussion at November's Florida Cabinet meeting. Not only is Florida Forever still operational, the future of public conservation lands may not be as dark as some had feared.
As Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam observed, "We have traditionally measured success of our land programs by how many acres we buy because there has always been plenty of money. Now the money is gone and we've got to get more creative about how we continue to fund these programs that all of us are proud of."
The 113 properties on the Florida Forever "wish list" reflect the priorities of five previous administrations and the booming economies that have blessed Florida through most of the last 20 years. Purchasing all 1.9 million acres would cost $11 billion.
Clay Smallwood, the new director of Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of State Lands, was correct during his Cabinet presentation when he said, "In this economy it is not feasible or prudent for us to consider purchasing every piece of land on this list." And since the conservation community needs to keep it real, I'll be the first to publicly admit that over the years properties have been added to that list that Floridians shouldn't buy even if the economy were robust.
Smallwood rightly points out a responsibility to taxpayers to carefully scrutinize future acquisitions and our current inventory of public lands, and ask ourselves several questions: "Do we own conservation land in the right places? Have we protected what needs to be protected? What have we missed protecting? And, are there parcels of surplus land we could sell to purchase higher quality conservation lands around sensitive springs or lands that could connect existing properties to complete wildlife corridors?"
Smallwood also underscored the role of public lands in protecting water supplies, preserving the health of estuaries and other critical natural resources, and the value of protecting the economic driver of our eco-tourism industry. If those conservation ethics hold firm as discussions continue, Florida's conservation programs will take some constructive steps forward.
"We've had some fear that the economy was going to be an excuse to eliminate the state's conservation lands program," Florida Wildlife Federation's Manley Fuller confessed. "Almost all of the lands acquired through this program are valuable, but most of the recommendations in the Bureau's Disposition of State Lands and Facilities Annual Report make good conservation sense. It identifies some practical changes necessary for the program's future — but the program does have a future — and a strategy I think we can work with."
We're not out of the woods yet. For its 2011-2012 legislative budget DEP is requesting $15 million. It's a far cry from the annual $300 million in bonded funding of yesteryear. Last year the Legislature approved a token budget for the program based solely on the sale of surplus lands, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.
Hopefully the governor is learning that public conservation lands are not a luxury — that they are a necessity that sustains irreplaceable plant and animal communities while also guaranteeing cost-effective places to store and treat the state's water supplies.
"A decade ago nobody wanted to talk about conservation easements, and now they may be our only way to continue our preservation strategy," said Putnam. Easements are a tool for stretching state dollars, enabling more land to be protected at lower prices. Conservation easements also mean the state does not incur ongoing land management costs. While easement lands are kept on the tax rolls, they also keep agriculture in production and safeguard the environmental services Floridians depend on.
The Nature Conservancy's Janet Bowman is hopeful that the proposed budget would allow Florida to pull federal money into the program. Even this modest allocation could keep the state eligible for federal partnerships that grant funds for lands around military bases and help restoration efforts like the $100 million gained from the federal Farm Bill for the Northern Everglades.
Margaret McPherson is the executive director of the Legacy Institute for Nature and Culture, with a mission to celebrate and protect Florida's natural and cultural heritage through art. You can explore the images of the 2012 Florida Forever Conservation Photography Calendar and previous calendars at www.linc.us. Most of these private properties have never been seen by the general public.