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Buy more land for conservation again, environmental groups tell lawmakers

A bill in the Senate proposes dedicating $100 million to conservation efforts, but activists want the state to spend triple that amount.

ST. PETERSBURG — Environmental leaders spoke at the local Sierra Club in tandem with similar gatherings across the state Friday morning, asking the governor to commit $300 million for land conservation.

The goal is to bring back a land-buying program called Florida Forever that preserved some of the remaining wild places across the state’s rapidly developing landscape. Between 2009 and 2014, lawmakers slashed its funding by more than 97 percent and started draining the money off to spend on other projects.

Then in 2014, 75 percent of voters passed a constitutional amendment designed to force the state to revive the funding for Florida Forever. But the Legislature repeatedly punted on implementing the amendment. Lawmakers steered the money into salaries for the staff of the state parks and state forest system instead of buying land under the Florida Forever program.

“It’s a classic Tallahassee sweep,” said state Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg.

RELATED: One more time to revive Florida Forever before its Florida Never

Since the passage of Amendment 1, legislators each year have directed at least $200 million to the Everglades, $64 million to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million to natural springs and $5 million to Lake Apopka.

But Diamond said the state should be able to pay for those conservation efforts in addition to the land acquisition program. One should not come at the expense of the other.

“We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.

Last year, the House offered a little more than $20 million for land acquisition and the Senate suggested $45 million. Both were are a far cry from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed $100 million.

Related story: Florida Forever land acquisition falls short in this year’s budget

The approved $90.9 billion budget ended up setting aside $33 million for the land buys.

“We’re tired of getting the scraps," said Lindsay Cross, government relations director at Florida Conservation Voters. “The needs of our state have only grown."

A bill filed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, proposed designating $100 million in next year’s budget for the conservation efforts.

But some environmentalists say that’s not nearly enough, and are instead calling for repeated annual funding of at least $300 million a year.

RELATED: Ron DeSantis to sign $91 billion budget

“We used to have a broad bipartisan coalition in Tallahassee that supported this concept,” Diamond said. “It has fallen apart.”

Diamond pointed to Gov. Rick Scott as the cause of that disintegration. Scott signed eight annual budgets funding Florida Forever at zero, $8.4 million, $20 million, $12.5 million, $15 million, zero, zero, and $100 million.

“We had a governor in the prior administration that this was not his priority,” Diamond said. “But its Floridians’ priority, and that’s why Floridians said we’re tired of Tallahassee doing nothing ... we’re going to pass this constitutional amendment. But now it’s been another five years.”

A letter to the governor and House and Senate leadership signed by more than 120 businesses and organizations said conservation lands are critical to ensuring a sustainable water supply, supporting Florida’s tourism-based economy, providing recreational opportunities, saving native wildlife and providing storm and flood protection.

“There is no time to lose,” the letter said. “If we do not act to save Florida’s environmentally sensitive lands from development now, we will lost the opportunity forever.”

Times reporter Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.times or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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