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Guest Column
Have politicians forgotten Florida Forever, the best land conservation program in America? | Column
Never mind what the Florida Constitution says, governors and Legislatures have ignored the will of the voters — the people — year after year.
This photograph, which appeared in the 2012 Florida Forever calendar, was taken by Mac Stone in the Green Swamp, which feeds water to the Hillsborough River.
This photograph, which appeared in the 2012 Florida Forever calendar, was taken by Mac Stone in the Green Swamp, which feeds water to the Hillsborough River.
Published Feb. 22

It’s true that low taxes and warm weather attracts many new citizens to Florida. A closer look will show that underpinning the economics and comfort of living are the fundamentals of what makes Florida Florida — our water and land resources. Florida is defined by its sandy beaches and estuaries; freshwater, lakes, springs and rivers; abundant fish and wildlife; and far more natural amenities. They exist because the state has been successful in conserving its most important assets. Florida Forever and its predecessors have been acclaimed as the best land conservation programs in the United States.

It’s also true that Florida Forever has been woefully underfunded for more than a decade. Something needs to be done about that.

Estus Whitfield
Estus Whitfield [ Provided ]

Since the 1970s the state has recognized that regulations and persuasion couldn’t protect the values of undeveloped, natural land, and the only way certain to protect its natural values was through purchase. Land acquisition programs in the 1970s and ’80s permanently set aside thousands of acres in the Everglades region and throughout Florida. Following that lead, in 1990 the Legislature passed the Preservation 2000 Act, which enabled the purchase of $300 million of environmentally sensitive land each year for 10 years. More than 1.7 million acres were forever protected from the untethered development of the state.

Building on the success of Preservation 2000, in 1999, the state Legislature passed the Florida Forever Act to provide $300 million per year for environmental land acquisition for another 10 years.

The Florida Forever Act called for the acquisition of lands listed by the Florida Acquisition and Recreation Council, as well as the Rural and Family Lands, Florida Communities Trust and Florida Recreation Development Assistance programs. Acquisitions could be by outright purchase or purchase of development rights or easements. Under Florida Forever more than 869,000 acres were purchased with $3.2 billion. Together these two programs purchased and protected over 2.6 million acres.

The Florida Forever program received its allocated funding of $300 million, sometimes more, through 2008 and was then drastically reduced due to the economic down turn of that year. It has languished ever since. In 2009 it received $0; in 2010, $15 million; in 2011, $0; in 2012, $8.4 million; in 2013, $21.7 million; in 2014, $17.4 million. Underfunding of the program continues to this day.

With the main intention of restoring funding for Florida Forever to its historic levels, in 2012 a group of Florida conservation organizations began a referendum drive called “The Water and Land Conservation Initiative” to amend the state Constitution. In 2014 Amendment 1 passed with 75 percent voter approval. The amendment requires that one-third of the proceeds of the state’s real estate documentary stamp taxes go to purposes stated, with Florida Forever as top priority. Other conservation programs such as land management, Everglades restoration, springs protection and beach nourishment were also to be funded. It was projected that $20 billion would be raised during the forthcoming 20 years, approximately $1 billion per year on average.

Never mind what the Florida Constitution said, governors and Legislatures have ignored the will of the voters — the people — year after year. Even after the Constitution was amended in 2014, Florida Forever funding has year after year continued to be sporadic and never close to what was intended: $37.9 million in 2015; $105 million in 2016; $10 million in 2017; $96.8 million in 2018; $34.5 million in 2019 and $91.7 million in 2020. Where did the money go? Everglades restoration has been generously funded; and land management, springs protection, beach nourishment, and other projects have also received funding. Yet Florida Forever has gotten only a small fraction of what the Constitution intended. Florida Forever funding should be a minimum of $300 million per year — anything less is a slap in the face of Florida voters and our environment.

Projections are that the amendment will raise over $965 million in fiscal year 2021-22. The governor’s 2021-22 budget recommends $473 million for Everglades restoration including major engineering and construction works and a scant $50 million for Florida Forever. If you live in north, east, west or central Florida, you’re on the short end. Think about that. I helped Gov. Bob Graham establish the Everglades restoration program in 1983 and spent a large part of my career in its pursuit. Everglades restoration is very important and needs to be pursued with more thoughtfulness and less politics. The majority of the state should not be shortchanged in favor of one of its regions.

A 2016 study by the University of Florida GeoPlan Center in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and 1000 Friends of Florida projected that by 2070 the state’s population will surpass 33 million, 15 million more than in 2010, and every new resident will need a place to live. Over 11 million acres of land will be developed. As a result of loss of land, loss of aquifer recharge areas, and increased demands, water supplies are in jeopardy. Your children and grandchildren need to be paying attention.

In plain language, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment intended primarily to fund Florida Forever has been ignored and brazenly abused since its passage. The 4.2 million Floridians who voted for the amendment and those who want Florida to continue to be a beautiful and desirable place to live should be offended. The state’s leaders have thumbed their noses at you and by their actions have said — we don’t care how you voted or what you think.

If our land and water resources are important to you, speak up and tell the governor and legislators that you care, and have a long memory.

Estus Whitfield, who was the principal environmental adviser to six Florida governors, is a founding member of the Florida Conservation Coalition. He’s a Florida native.