Editorial: Preserve wild Florida before it's too late

As dairy farms and citrus groves disappear, much more needs to be done to avoid paving over Florida's wild spaces. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
As dairy farms and citrus groves disappear, much more needs to be done to avoid paving over Florida's wild spaces.MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published May 22 2017

The last dairy farm in Hillsborough County has milked its final cow, the pastures sold to developers who will build 1,000 new homes. The remnants of the last commercial citrus grove in Pinellas County, where the Sunshine State's famed industry began in the 19th century, were sold last year to make room for 136 homes. Neither development is surprising in a Tampa Bay area that is home to 3 million people and which grew by another 58,000 last year. But in a state facing such development pressure, much more needs to be done to avoid paving over paradise. Florida's state leaders fail to understand the urgency of protecting wild Florida while they still can.

The budget approved by the Legislature set aside absolutely nothing for the land acquisition program called Florida Forever. It once got $300 million a year. And the state is failing to spend enough money from Amendment 1, approved by voters in 2014, to keep land wild in perpetuity.

Another program, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, helps to buy easements to protect ranch and farmland from development while it remains in private hands. It is getting a mere $10 million in the proposed budget. Today, Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet will decide on a plan to spend about $8.5 million to preserve thousands of acres of land owned for generations in Okeechobee and Highlands counties by two ranching families.

If those deals are approved, the fund will have only $11 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. In other words, the rollover money and the paltry amount allocated for next fiscal year means the fund will likely go dry before 2018, leaving no money at all for more easement purchases. Meanwhile, 1,000 people a day are moving to the state.

Nature advocates have proposed a Florida Wildlife Corridor to ensure that Florida's wildlife, including its signature Florida panther and black bear, literally have room to roam in an ever more crowded Florida. A trio of them have even hiked, biked and cycled two such corridors on expeditions stretching the length of the peninsula to prove the concept's viability. But with every newcomer moving to Florida and with every sale of yet another farm or ranch for development, the odds of preserving wild Florida grow just a little longer.

The Legislature and the governor need to awaken to the urgency of saving land while they can. Once a house is built, it is there forever, at least until another owner knocks it down to build a bigger one a generation from now. Development and preservation can go hand in hand, but there has to be enough land left to preserve. The state's future, its water supply and its environment depend on wise stewardship of what the state already has.

When the new Hillsborough subdivision is built, the only reminder of the dairy that was once there will be streets named after different members of the families that once farmed it. After the 160 cows were milked for one last time in Florida, they were loaded into four 18-wheelers and trucked to their new home, an hour south of Atlanta, where the same farm family hopes to make their dairy a going concern.

That a Florida farm family is seeking a better life not so far from Atlanta speaks volumes about how much work Florida has to do to preserve its wild legacy before it's too late. After all, as those cows headed north on Interstate 75, how many new Floridians passed them going the other way, bound for the Sunshine State?