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Land for the generations

Florida is a fragile peninsula that is now the nation's fourth most populous state, and the crush of continued development is redefining its watery landscape. But for all the regulatory conflict such development produces, one investment is almost certain to pay dividends.

In this state, Preservation 2000 is preserving paradise.

The program, as Times staff writer David Rogers reports, has now used $1.2-billion in tax money to put 350 square miles of endangered land in the hands of the public. It has claimed Topsail Hill in the Panhandle, a 300-acre dune-covered waterfront stretch that once was destined for development. It has protected the Green Swamp, a biologically rich community that serves as the headwaters for much of the water that people in Central Florida drink. It has helped to insulate rivers, scrub lands, mangrove forests and swamps from development throughout the state. And there's still more to go.

Preservation 2000 is four years into the state Legislature's 10-year, $3-billion land-buying commitment, and the Tampa Bay area can be proud that two of its own lawmakers _ Rep. Sandy Safley, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor _ are now proposing a permanent plan for financing. The Kiser-Safley approach, which is already winning support in both chambers this year, would designate a portion of the documentary stamp tax to pay for future years. More important, it would authorize the state Department of Environmental Protection _ without further legislative approval _ to continue operating the program each of the remaining years at $300-million annually.

That's a huge investment, without question. But the economic timing has been advantageous, the program enjoys immense public support, and land-buying may represent the only true way to save some pieces of paradise.

"We realized that we had to change the direction of conservation," John Flicker of the Nature Conservancy told Rogers. "It was becoming clear that regulation itself wasn't doing the job. . . . Nobody was accomplishing what they had set out to do: Environmentally important sites weren't being preserved and developers weren't able to complete their projects. Outright purchase and complete control of a site was the only permanent answer."

Flicker is right. The conflict between developers and regulators will persist, but the lands the public is now purchasing will endure. Preservation 2000 is saving land for the generations.

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