Florida's elected officials took an important first step this month in finally implementing the will of the people who voted overwhelmingly for Amendment 1 a few years ago, which amended the state Constitution to set aside money to preserve wild Florida. With Senate Bill 370, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, passing the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee on Nov. 6, I am cautiously optimistic that something better than scraps will become available for conservation.
As an organization that has trekked 2,000 miles through Florida's wildest and most threatened landscapes, we at the Florida Wildlife Corridor know the significance of taking the first step. But just as keeping a New Year's resolution is smooth sailing for the first few days, the conservation community must stay vigilant to ensure that the remaining steps fall into place.
SB 370 would allocate $100 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to support the conservation of lands through acquisition or by limiting future development rights. While this is a far cry from the $300 million that was available during the height of the Florida Forever program, it is a welcome change from a 2017 session that appropriated a scant $10 million toward agricultural easements.
The focus last session was simply on cleaning up decades of bad decisions in the Everglades, and so other conservation imperatives got short shrift, even though moving forward on conservation projects could avoid an Everglades-like debacle in the first place.
Although the Senate is taking the lead on legislation, stumbling blocks remain, including the debates around debt service and paying off bonds for past conservation projects. In the years since Amendment 1 passed in 2014, the trust fund has essentially been a slush fund used by the Legislature to pay for activities that should be supported by general revenue — things like purchasing new trucks or salaries for an entire IT department.
Management of existing public lands is an allowable expense that requires equipment and manpower, but not to the tune of $227 million to $257 million annually that has gone toward operating and regulatory expenses. These activities should not be paid for with money that the voters expressly intended for actual and meaningful on-the-ground conservation.
There is still much work to be done. The backlog of worthy conservation projects on the Florida Forever list numbers in the hundreds. Conservative estimates have a $2.5 billion price tag to protect the approximately 2.2 million acres of lands and waters that are needed not only to support our human population but to maintain connectivity for wildlife, fighting for space in a state topping 20 million residents.
Some officials are starting to hear the voice of the people and Bradley, in his closing comments, stated that it is "long overdue that we move forward aggressively in making sure that we honor what the voters did in Amendment 1."
As critical as economic growth is, conservation will not happen in a free-market society. With that understanding, voters' overwhelming mandate in 2014 may finally be fulfilled. Both houses must agree on a workable but significant number.
Conserving what is special about our state — the astounding natural habitats and the wildlife and people that depend on them — deserves more than crumbs or a one-time infusion of money by politicians hoping to greenwash their record. The passage of the bloated SB 10 Everglades bill last year demonstrates that the Legislature can find the money. In this case, the money has been there all along. It's finally time to use it for its intended purpose.
Lindsay Cross is executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.