The Florida Native Plant Society recognizes the difficult decisions now facing our state as a result of severe budget shortfalls. Those decisions include a proposal by the Legislature to cut virtually all funding for the highly successful Florida Forever land conservation program, and to also make large cuts in funding for state parks and basic resource management needs on existing conservation lands.
Although budget cuts clearly are unavoidable, this proposal is shortsighted and may very well set the stage for the Legislature to kill Florida Forever. Projections indicate the state's financial condition will only deteriorate more. If funding for conservation is cut so completely right from the outset of this economic crisis, can anyone doubt that Florida Forever will continue to be deprived of funding into the next fiscal year? And maybe the several that follow?
The latest Florida Department of Transportation Agency Overview (December 2008) acknowledges an FDOT budget of $8.2-billion for 2009. Many legislators have suggested that road building creates jobs while conservation is simply a drain on the state budget that can only be afforded when the coffers are flush. So they consider FDOT's share of the budget to be sacrosanct and Florida Forever to be wasteful.
To be blunt, this is misleading and a gross oversimplification.
A 1 percent cut in FDOT's budget would save about $82-million. How many miles of asphalt can be laid for $82-million and how many jobs does that money still represent after right-of-way is purchased and the other huge capital costs of a road project are covered? Not as many as you might think.
But that could be enough money to fund the entirety of basic resource management needs (e.g., prescribed burning, control of invasive nuisance species, and protection of imperiled species) on the state's conservation lands, with enough left over to bond an entire annual share of acquisition funding for Florida Forever.
How many Floridians would benefit directly from the continued acquisition of natural lands in Florida and the continued conservation of our existing state parks and other natural treasures by continuing to manage them properly? Quite simply, everyone who recreates on those lands, or is employed in managing them or in helping to accommodate the public's enjoyment of them.
The economic benefits of land conservation and our superlative state park system — of ecotourism generally — have been well documented. There are many jobs supported by the conservation "industry," albeit some low-paying ones that don't exert as much influence in the halls of the Legislature as the consulting firms, mining interests and construction companies that benefit from road construction.
Many concerned citizens may find it difficult to consider conservation a priority when large budget cuts are being imposed on public education, health care and essential services for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
However, it is important to recognize that Florida Forever bonding makes good fiscal sense. A $10-million appropriation for Florida Forever now would have a disproportionately large economic impact by allowing the state to bond $300 million to purchase lands now, while they are available and affordable and after many landowners have negotiated in good faith with the state. Those lands, and the environmental resources they hold, may not be available next year.
The Legislature is also proposing the closure of many existing state parks. Even if temporary closures are necessitated by budget cuts — and we hope they are not — we mustn't allow basic resource management needs on those lands to be ignored, even for a year.
Proper management of our existing conservation lands it is a basic responsibility from which we cannot take a vacation. Prescribed burning and the control of non-native nuisance species are relatively inexpensive activities but critical for maintaining the environmental values of those lands and protecting the sizeable investment we have already made in protecting them. The money Florida saves today by cutting management funding would be miniscule and will be far exceeded by the additional funding needed to compensate for a year or more of neglect.
In addition, the likelihood of wildfires igniting in our unattended parks and preserves, and posing a threat to neighboring homes, will increase, as will the likelihood of arson. Impacts to endangered species will be more likely when we are no longer monitoring them or protecting them from unauthorized access. We can close lands to the public, but our responsibility and liability for what happens on them will not go away.
Floridians are looking for responsible leadership from our elected officials in these difficult times. We must resist the Legislature's irresponsible budget proposal when there are so many other ways to save money rather than by just cutting services to the people.
And make no mistake, the recreational values and ecosystem services provided by conserving and protecting our natural environment are services to the people. Clean air and water, healthy rivers and estuaries, and the green spaces that nurture our souls and provide habitat for all our native plants and wildlife are important services to all of us.
Unfortunately, rivers and native plants and wildlife do not wield much clout with our legislators. The consulting firms and construction companies that build roads do, and they will be the grateful recipients of $8.2-billion. If you aren't offended by that, you should be.
Eugene M. Kelly of Brooksville is president of the Florida Native Plant Society.