Friday, November 17, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Don't sell wildlife area; preserve it

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State officials are using flawed logic and a questionable process in compiling a list of Florida's surplus lands. However much they try to soften the blow, there is no reason to put thousands of acres in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area up for sale. The Department of Environmental Protection should remove it from the list and look for new sources of conservation money.

Gov. Rick Scott's plan to sell state-owned property in order to purchase conservation areas with greater environmental value is not without merit. There is nothing wrong with periodically reviewing the inventory of state-owned lands to ensure the property continues to serve a public purpose. But the process, which began this year, has looked more about hitting the $50 million revenue goal than about carefully weighing the worthiness of thousands of acres of environmental land.

Take the Hilochee in Polk County. Totaling some 2,600 acres, the six parcels in the tract formed the biggest chunk of land on the original list of 5,000 acres that the state said might be declared as surplus. But the state has not made a credible case for selling the property. The land is located in the Green Swamp, the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Withlacoochee and the Hillsborough, the main drinking water source for the city of Tampa. Protecting the swamp is considered vital to protecting the Florida aquifer.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported recently, records show the Hilochee land was put on the surplus list in haste, with what one state wildlife official called a "fairly quick and coarse review." Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which owns the property, strongly urged that Hilochee be taken off the list. But senior officials have kept the Hilochee on the list with the caveat that any buyer must preserve a conservation easement barring development. That is a confusing stipulation that makes no sense, and it still fails to recognize the public value to the property.

The state is looking to have it both ways, putting the Hilochee up for sale while acknowledging both practically and legally that the property continues to serve an ecological purpose. The land along Interstate 4 has also long been slated as the site for an important wildlife crossing aimed at keeping bears and other animals from being hit. The DEP should leave Hilochee in state hands and find a new revenue source. The Scott administration insisted this process would be environmentally driven. If that's the case, it cannot seriously think of surrendering land the state has already described as part of "a critical hydrologic resource."

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