Thursday, November 23, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Put Florida nature first, not dollars

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Gov. Rick Scott's plan to sell surplus public land to raise money to buy land more critical to environmental conservation is acceptable in theory. But the preliminary list of surplus properties is dictated by reaching an arbitrary goal of raising $50 million instead of sound management of public resources. That is the danger of this approach, and the governor and Cabinet should insist on a list based on environmental considerations, not financial calculations.

The list from the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of State Lands includes 169 parcels consisting of 5,331 acres in 67 state parks, forests and wildlife areas. Environmental advocates agree some parcels on the list should be sold. The state often buys all of a seller's property as a part of a negotiated deal — not just what the state had identified as environmentally sensitive. But that's not where the list stops.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported, transcripts from the July 15 meeting of the Surplus Lands Initiative's Technical Advisory Group suggest that reaching the $50 million value mark approved by the Legislature is most important. One state consultant told the group — which fretted the state just didn't have that much surplus land — that they need to reset their criteria to hit the fiscal mark.

DEP ended up including, for example, 2,600 acres in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County that were purchased to protect the aquifer. The land lies in the Green Swamp, home to the headwaters of four rivers. Less than a decade ago, the Tallahassee Democrat reported, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommended adding 12,500 acres to the area. Now, under a new governor, it has joined other state agencies in signing off on declaring the property surplus.

Another example: 400 acres identified in the Wekiwa Springs State Park north of Orlando. Less than a decade ago under Gov. Jeb Bush, the state passed new protections anticipating buying more land to protect the springs but also to create a much-needed wildlife corridor in Central Florida.

It's not the first time the Scott administration has pursued significant changes to valued state lands only to later retreat. Two years ago, after drawing huge opposition to allowing camping at Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County, DEP dropped the plan. Now the public needs to let its voice be heard again. Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — should ensure that only truly surplus land is sold to buy other land.

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