Legislators advance bill that rewrites how Florida parks, preserves are managed

Aerial view of Honeymoon Island. [JIM DAMASKE, Times (2011)]
Aerial view of Honeymoon Island. [JIM DAMASKE, Times (2011)]
Published Feb. 19, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A sweeping lands bill that gives state regulators the power to repurpose state parks and preserves for hunting, grazing, tree farming and even RV camping passed its final committee in the state House on Thursday after its sponsor removed provisions environmentalists feared would undermine the state's conservation programs.

HB 1075 and its Senate companion SB 1290 are being proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consolidate state laws relating to land management and give the agency more flexibility as it attempts to manage the more than 13 million acres of land in the state's control.

But some environmentalists warn that the broad-based changes gives regulators too much control by allowing them to change whether land that was acquired for conservation can be changed to be used for recreation, thereby diluting the oversight of the governor and Cabinet.

They fear that state preserves — purchased over decades to protect sensitive aquifer recharge areas and endangered habitats — could become hunting grounds, timber forests or leased by the state for farming and ranching.

"We think this is the case of the tail wagging the dog," said David Cullen, lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Florida, at a meeting of the House State Affairs Committee. "By legislative fiat, it employs a small piece of the executive branch — that being DEP — to overturn what the members of the Cabinet and governor have done."

The bills consolidates the disparate elements of the state's land management laws into a single statute and, in the process, updates the state lands database to include conservation lands owned by the state, federal government and non-profit entities and conducts a study about handling those lands. It also gives regulators new flexibility to change the purpose of state lands

"This initial bill did raise some controversy with various advocates," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the House sponsor of the bill. He said he worked with Audubon of Florida, The Nature Conservancy, the Isaac Walton League and Palm Beach County to rewrite the bill to accommodate their concerns. "What you have here hopes to address most of the concerns of those groups."

Among the changes Caldwell agreed to was removing a provision that would have allowed the state to use Florida Forever funds to pay for water resource development projects that previously have been paid for with local water management district funds. He also removed a provision that would have allowed the state to put land into surplus that doesn't meet the state's land management goals — even when the Legislature fails to provide the funds to pay for the land management.

Left unchanged is a provision that would allow landowners with property contiguous to parks to obtain a conservation easement to take ownership of the park land. Caldwell said that is a top priority of his because he believes easements and the exchange of land is essential to the future of the state's landscape-scaled conservation. Environmentalists, however, fear that while the practice could expand the footprint of public land, it also has potential for abuse because there is not guarantee that the public would benefit from the land deals.

Each of the groups commended Caldwell for working with them to alleviate concerns, and the committee voted unanimously for the bill.

"In recent memory, this has been one of the most positive experiences where I was really quite astounded that the majority of our changes were incorporated in the bill and we really felt our concerns were responded to," said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy. She said that while the bill is "not perfect, the Nature Conservancy can live with it."

But the loudest critic, Sierra Club of Florida, warned that it was not happy with the provision that gives regulators broader authority and flexibility.

"Flexibility is a good thing but, sometimes, flexibility means no accountability," Cullen said after the meeting. "The lands of the state were acquired with public dollars, and the state should be accountable for those lands."

For the last four years, DEP has tried to find ways to reduce the state's inventory of conservation lands or find ways to commercialize the state's holdings, but it backed down in the face of public protests. In 2011, for example, the agency unsuccessfully proposed constructing an RV park at Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County and adding campsites to 55 other states parks as a way to add revenue for the state.

In 2013, DEP tried and failed to launch a statewide program to surplus state conservation land and sell it to the highest bidder. And in 2015, the agency proposed leasing a portion of the Myakka River State Park for cattle grazing but withdrew the proposal after public opposition.

Environmentalists view both Caldwell's bill, and the companion measure by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, as an extension of that effort by DEP. They now hope that Simpson will incorporate the changes agreed to by Caldwell into his proposal.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.