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Florida Forever conserves ecosystems as money dwindles

Land acquisition program aims to find willing sellers of undeveloped areas.
In Southwest Florida, Florida Forever is preserving what scant land is left for the Florida panther.
In Southwest Florida, Florida Forever is preserving what scant land is left for the Florida panther. [ PHOTO BY JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Oct. 2, 2021

NAPLES — East of the Southwest Florida city centers, where dense cypress domes and live oaks dripping with moss replace concrete and stucco, the world wakes up differently.

The din of the early commute in natural Florida is not blaring horns or humming tires but chirping tree frogs and whispering wings.

At Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area, which straddles the Collier-Hendry border, an overcast August morning breaks on the ranchlands where cattle are free to roam forever.

The 20,000-acre preserve was purchased under a large, statewide land acquisition program that began in 2001 under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Florida Forever, touted as “the largest land acquisition program of its kind in the United States” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, aims to find willing sellers of undeveloped land to conserve in perpetuity. That work continues.

“What allowed us to be so successful with Florida Forever is we made sure it would benefit every part of the state,” said David Struhs, who served as FDEP secretary under Bush. “We didn’t just want the south, north, east, west, urban, rural or environmental or agricultural interests. We knew that it had to be big and long-lasting enough where it would touch across all those geographic and economic areas.”

To date, the program has purchased about 850,000 acres of land with approximately $3.2 billion. FDEP collects money from real estate transactions, called document stamps, to fund its acquisitions.

Dinner Island, where cattle egrets hitch rides on heifers and purple pickerel flowers line the wandering gravel roads, is only a small portion of a more ambitious potential buy: nearly 250,000 acres stretching from Big Cypress National Preserve north to Okaloacoochee Slough, called Panther Glades.

That tract is ranked seventh on the program’s priority list, along with projects such as Blue Head Ranch in Highlands County and the Apalachicola River near the Florida-Georgia border.

The state has already bought large tracts in the area, but nearly 40,000 acres remain on the priority list. The list, updated most recently in May, contains 37 Critical Natural Lands as well as a plethora of other potential buys.

The department offers two options for landowners: buying the land outright, called fee simple; or placing a conservation easement on the land, called less-than-fee.

Lands on the priority list are still privately held, and the state could miss the opportunity to put natural landscapes into conservation if it doesn’t move quickly.

Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, recalls when Virginia land developer Eddie Garcia wrote to the state asking it to purchase his land within the Panther Glades and did not get a response.

Florida Power and Light instead bought the land with plans to build power production plants.

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Deer feed at Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area in Hendry County. The land was purchased in the early 2000s with Florida Forever funds. There is land adjacent and near the property that is on the priority list for purchase.

In 2012, Schwartz wrote to the Florida Public Service Commission in opposition of FPL’s purchase: “The history of development in South Florida shows that projects like this will not long stand in isolation. Development follows development.”

“That’s the biggest incursion having a massive industrial facility going in on the east side of very pristine panther habitat,” Schwartz said in a recent interview.

A range of benefits

With estimates of Florida’s population growing between 800 to 1,000 people per day, sprawling development can threaten the diverse subtropical landscape.

“Florida Forever is one of the most popular programs out there,” Schwartz said. “If I talk to people about Everglades restoration, they roll eyes because it’s been decades and they have not seen results. People love Florida Forever.”

In Southwest Florida, at least, the program is conserving what scant land is left to the Florida panther.

“The panther is in Southwest Florida because that is all the habitat that is left now, and it’s disappearing because of gigantic land development in Lee and Collier counties,” he said. “Panther Glades is even way more important now than when it was put on the priority list 20 years ago,” Schwartz said.

The benefits of conserving land stretch beyond providing habitat for panthers.

“Wetlands and non-paved uplands absorb water and help to filter that water,” said Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “Flooding, sea-level rise, toxic algae blooms, these are all aggravated by the fact that we are losing open spaces.”

Focusing on the health of rivers can be done in part by protecting the health of the lands around them.

“You know, we have the most straightforward way to help our water resources: Protect the land,” Budd said.

It comes down to the quality of life for Floridians, she said, which is supported by the environment. From the springs in the north to the Everglades in the south.

“And of course, you don’t want to forget that in addition to water quality and habitat for environmental benefits, our environment here in Florida is inextricably tied to the state’s economy.”

And what makes Florida Forever unique is that it’s a willing seller program.

“Nothing is being taken away from anyone that doesn’t want it to be taken,” Budd said.

In September 2020, Fort Myers-based Alico Inc. sold 10,702 acres of its Alico Ranch land in Hendry County to the Florida Forever program for $28.5 million.

Jim Strickland, vice president of the nonprofit Florida Conservation Group, advocates for landowner conservation programs and keeping agricultural lands operational.

Strickland, a cattle rancher, said Florida Forever is one option for his fellow ranchers to remain sustainable.

“If you’re not profitable on a piece of dirt you can’t be sustainable,” he said. “I am not anti-development, but we need the opportunity for these folks to have other options than putting a for sale sign on their property.”

Any landowner can offer a portion of their land to the program for a price, and Strickland said the recognition of what this open land does for society is going to be of paramount importance.

“We’re on the cusp of climate change, and Florida is kind of the epicenter I think,” he said. “If we’re going to be part of the solution, Florida Forever is one of the answers.”

Florida Forever was, during the Jeb Bush years, one of the nation’s best programs that vetted lands and prioritized conservation lands in the nation, he said.

A $3 billion start

Struhs remembers traveling to the Everglades Coalition annual meeting in February 1999 following Bush’s inauguration. On the way back to Tallahassee, he was seated with the governor and the head of Florida’s Office of Policy and Budget.

“That’s when he began talking very seriously about proposing a substantial signature investment into land acquisition and land restoration,” Struhs recalled. “I remember at the time thinking this is almost too good to be true.”

Struhs, the head of the state’s environmental agency, was supposed to be the one lobbying the governor for such resources and here Bush was making the pitch right in front of the state’s budget hawk.

“I thought I had to pinch myself,” Struhs said.

Florida at that time was in a very propitious moment in its history with lots of people moving in, he said. There were lots of land transactions and lots of revenue from the doc stamps.

“I remember it was not just the governor, but key legislative leaders making the connection that if there was ever a time to pay for conservation, preservation, and restoration of land, this was probably that moment in history because there was this reliable stream of resources.”

The program was the follow-up to its predecessor and similarly voluntary program, Preservation 2000, which sunset as Bush took office.

Struhs said the new administration had to make an early decision to let the conservation program expire or continue the efforts.

“The governor clearly wanted to build on that record,” he said.

There was a recognition that the state needed to make substantial investments into land acquisition and restoration that extended beyond environmental preservation into infrastructure for water supply and flood control, he said.

One of Struhs’s cherished memories was pitching the idea to Bush that the program needs to focus not only on lands that would benefit the Everglades, but the springs and recreational opportunities in north Florida.

“We wanted to make sure we had the support of the entire Legislature, not Republicans or Democrats, but we wanted every legislator to feel like there was something in this for them.”

Preserving some one-of-a-kind sites

For Peter Kleinhenz, conservation chair of Apalachee Audubon Society in Tallahassee, Florida Forever is one of the best decisions the Legislature has ever made.

Tracing the boundary between Jefferson and Taylor counties in north Florida, the Wacissa/Aucilla rivers flow into the Gulf but not before going underground and resurfacing about 30 times, a phenomenon called river sinks.

About 15,000 acres surrounding these sinks are on the high priority list for Florida Forever, and with good reason, Kleinhenz said.

The area encompasses a trio of unique features: natural, cultural, and geologic, he said. The Wacissa River is spring-fed and flows clear until it reaches the dark Aucilla where the sinks begin. Along the Wasicca, the oldest records of humans in North America were found.

“It totally flips what we understand about colonization in this region on its head,” Kleinhenz said. “There’s evidence of every Native American group found along the Wasicca.”

The natural and unique beauty of the area is accentuated on the Slave Canal, where Kleinhenz says one of the most gorgeous and wildest paddles exist.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” he said.

Other areas in the state are also listed as a high priority. From the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle to Blue Head Ranch in Highland County and Wekiva-Ocala Greenway that spans Lake, Orange, Seminole, and Volusia counties.

It’s this vast, statewide scope that Struhs said makes the program so successful.

Faltering funds

In recent years, however, Florida Forever’s funding revenue has hit a series of slumps. As a nascent program, the budget was set at $3 billion to extend 10 years, providing a coffer of $300 million each year. During the 2009-10 fiscal year, which followed the 2008 recession, the Legislature did not fund the program and it’s been nowhere close to its initial budget since.

As of May, the program’s appropriation budget clocked in at just under $57 million.

In 2014, 75 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 1, which was meant to bolster the revenue streams for the state’s land acquisition fund. Just more than a year later, environmental groups filed lawsuits claiming the funding had been misspent as the money went toward salaries and employee benefits.

Eventually, in 2019, the 1st District Court of Appeal would rule against the groups.

While funding has dwindled in recent years, Struhs remembers when the program began, there wasn’t that initial clamoring and competition for resources.

“People knew that this rising tide was going to lift all the boats,” he said.

That’s why some people, such as Budd, are still pushing for more funding.

“Land conservation is not a red issue, it’s not a blue issue, it’s a green issue,” she said. “People can unite with the understanding that our economy and our quality of life is contingent on protecting our natural resources and if we don’t have adequate funding for this important program, then the state’s most environmentally significant areas may be at risk for conversion.”

- By Karl Schneider, Naples Daily News


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