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Florida Forever? More like Florida Never after Legislature spends zero dollars on land-buying program

Adams Ranch, a candidate for protection in 2015 within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. Osceola County, Florida

The Adams Ranch in Osceola County, bordering Lake Marian, is also part of the Everglades Headwaters National Conservation Area. Rural and Family Lands has funded conservation easements on more than 2,000 acres of the property, ensuring this land will never be developed. Additional easements from USFWS and Florida Forever could protect more of the 30,000-acre ranch. [CARLTON WARD JR. / Special to the Times]
Published May 6, 2017

Once again, the Florida Legislature has turned the politically popular Florida Forever program into Florida Never.

The budget that legislative leaders have approved — but which Gov. Rick Scott has yet to sign — calls for spending zero dollars on the Florida Forever program to buy up environmentally sensitive land.

That's not what the voters had in mind when they approved Amendment 1 in 2014 by an overwhelming margin, environmental advocates say.

"I am terribly disappointed that the will of the voters has been ignored by our elected legislative body," said Nat Reed, founder of 1,000 Friends of Florida. "Every year that there is no funding for Florida Forever is a lost year for Floridians."

The budget also includes no money for a grants program for local parks. Instead, its only land-buying component sets aside $10 million to pay ranchers not to develop their property.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, calls himself "the father of Florida Forever" because he backed the bill that created the program. But he told reporters Wednesday that he was "obviously disappointed" that he couldn't come up with any money for it.

Latvala blamed Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, saying that the House insisted on holding back millions more in reserve than the Senate. Still, Latvala contended that environmental spending as a whole made out pretty well, with funding for an Everglades reservoir, the beaches and the springs.

"If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it," Latvala said. "Next year I'll try to fix that."

But "wait till next year" has become a familiar refrain for Florida Forever.

Legislators have repeatedly stripped money out of the program and spent it on other purposes. That's the reason why environmental advocates came up with Amendment 1, explained Will Abberger of the Trust for Public Land, who headed the group that pushed for the amendment's passage in 2014.

"The main impetus was the fact that the money for Florida Forever was zeroed out in 2009," he said. So his group designed a constitutional amendment that would tell legislators "this needs to be a priority for our state."

A TV ad that ran before the 2014 election spelled out its goal, showing clouds marching across the sky over the Everglades, a rainbow and a girl swimming in a spring.

"What's more important than protecting Florida's natural areas?" the ad's narrator said. "For water. For wildlife. For people." Vote for Amendment 1, the ad said, if you want to "protect and restore" Florida's "drinking water, lakes, beaches, lakes, rivers and springs."

And people did. Amendment 1 passed in 2014 with 75 percent of the vote, a far higher margin of victory than for Gov. Rick Scott or any other politician running statewide.

However, Amendment 1 could only go so far. The decision on how to spend the money remained in the hands of the Florida Legislature. Instead of using it to buy land, lawmakers steered the money into salaries for the staff of the state parks and state forest system.

As a result, groups such as the Florida Defenders of the Environment, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club sued the state to overturn those spending decisions. If the Legislature fails to spend any money on Florida Forever again, that could lead to yet another lawsuit.

"We'll look at it very carefully to see if it could be the basis for a new challenge," said Joseph Little, the University of Florida law professor representing the Florida Defenders of the Environment in court.

One House member said the Legislature's reluctance to hand over millions to a land-buying program is a signal that times have changed.

"The situation today is different than it was in 1990" when Florida's original land-buying program, Preservation 2000, started, said state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who chairs the Government Accountability Committee. "We've acquired millions of acres since then."

Some legislators are wary of allowing even more land to be taken off the tax rolls in the name of environmental preservation, he said. Still others, he said, were unhappy with the large amount of debt that the state has incurred to run its land-buying program. Caldwell pushed a bill that passed the House to guarantee some money would go to Florida Forever starting next year. But it has not been passed by the Senate.

Abberger pointed out that, just as when the Florida Forever program started, Florida underwent a building boom. With no money for Florida Forever, that renewed development will probably swallow up some of the 2 million acres now included as priority acquisitions on the list prepared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"Once that's developed, it's gone," Abberger said. "We're spending billions of dollars to undo past mistakes in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. Why can't we get money set aside to make sure we don't make similar mistakes elsewhere?"

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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