Maybe you haven’t given it much thought or even realized it, but I’m guessing you have enjoyed public lands. Perhaps, you have some great memories of camping in one of Florida’s award-winning state parks. Maybe you took your child to hunt in one of the many Wildlife Management Areas. You might get your exercise by riding a mountain bike on a single-track trail in a state forest or rack up your miles on one of the many “rails to trails” in the Sunshine State.
Speaking of sunshine — when you want a day at the beach, maybe you are like me and prefer a natural beach experience with dunes, birds and open spaces instead of crowds, hotels and high rises. Whether your passion is birdwatching, camping, hunting, biking or hiking, chances are you have used and enjoyed public lands in Florida.
Floridians should be proud of our past commitment to protecting land for public use. For many years, Florida had one of the most aggressive and successful public land buying programs in the country. Through the foresight of past leaders and conservation organizations, we currently have about 9.6 million acres of state, federal and locally owned public lands. That amounts to about 27% of our land area. Given this history of accomplishment, it may be a fair question to ask, “When it comes to public land, how much is enough? Should we stop setting aside more land for the future and rest on our laurels?” My answer is an unequivocal “No!”
Despite what we have done, we need more public land for a simple reason. People! Over 21.5 million of them. That is Florida’s population according to the 2020 census, making us the third most populous state in the nation. When it comes to public land, it’s not just the number of acres that have been set aside, but also how many people are trying to access these wonderful landscapes. Our 9.6 million acres of public land ranks 14th in the country, but it’s a different story if you consider that land on a per capita basis. In Florida, if you divide the acres by our population it results in each resident having about 0.4 acres of public land! That makes us #26 in the country in terms of acres of public land per resident.
The states that have more public land per person are not just those in the western U.S., which is known for its wide-open spaces. Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Vermont and New York all have a more favorable ratio of acres of public lands per person. It’s even more concerning to learn that, unlike the country, Florida’s population is growing at about 1% a year, or about 1,000 residents per day. While numerous states have stable or declining populations, Florida’s population growth means we must share our limited public lands with more and more people every year — all vying for recreational space in their favorite places. Don’t forget about the 130 million visitors we have annually, many of whom also want to see the real Florida; you get the picture.
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The influx of residents and visitors simultaneously increases the need for more public lands and challenges the mission to protect the land. As real estate prices skyrocket, finding sufficient funding for conservation lands becomes more and more difficult. Government alone will not get the job done. It will require a partnership between the government, the generosity of private landowners, and the hard work of organizations dedicated to the mission of land conservation.
I’m proud to serve on the board of directors for what I think is the best land trust organization in the State: Conservation Florida. We are a land conservancy founded by Floridians with a statewide service area dedicated to working with all parties, public and private, to protect Florida’s most important landscapes. We need more Floridians to join us in our mission so that together we can conserve our natural areas and add to our public lands: for our residents, our visitors, and our future.
Kipp Frohlich was a wildlife biologist for 35 years for the State of Florida and now serves on the board of directors for Conservation Florida, a statewide accredited land conservancy working to conserve Florida’s water, wildlife, wild places and protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor.