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  1. Opinion

Column: To protect Florida's environment, fully fund Florida Forever

As the chief environmental adviser to six Florida governors, for more than 28 years I was in the thick of almost every major environmental issue from the Cross Florida Barge Canal, to Preservation 2000, to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. A lifetime of studying and advocating for laws to protect the environment has led me to the conclusion that we cannot regulate our way to clean water, plentiful wildlife, and preserved wild spaces. To protect Florida's environment, we need to actually protect it.

That means buying lands and conservation easements, and lots of them, while they are still in their natural state or can be restored. Conservation land acquisition is the most effective and, over time, least expensive solution to address our state's most pressing environmental problems. Natural lands provide an unending list of benefits and reduce the need for more expensive and less effective infrastructure projects to mimic the ecosystem services natural lands once provided.

In recent years, the ability of our state agencies to conserve natural lands has been hampered by a lack of funding and rules that prevented willing sellers from being offered fair prices for their lands. The Cabinet appears to have addressed the latter issue; now it is time for the Legislature to act on the former.

Unfortunately, the Legislature is moving in the wrong direction. Budget proposals by the Florida House and Senate included only $20 million and $45 million, respectively, for land conservation programs. That's less than the $100 million appropriated last year and mere fractions of the historic $300 million appropriation; and all while major expressways are being planned through the heart of sensitive areas that need to be conserved.

Florida's state agencies have identified millions of acres of priority lands they'd like to see protected at an estimated cost of nearly $12.3 billion. At current expenditure rates, it would take 172 years for the state to raise enough funds to acquire these lands.

Of course, anyone who has seen the wooded plots of land in their community replaced by subdivisions, sweeping acres of farmland along the highway converted to big box stores, and coastal dunes leveled for towering condos knows the state does not have 172 years to act. In Florida, we lose the equivalent of 10 acres of natural and working lands every hour to development, and with them, the invaluable natural goods and services they provide.

Increasingly, and particularly after last summer's algal bloom and Red Tide crises, Floridians are recognizing the connection between the development of natural lands and our physical and economic wellbeing. Natural lands are critical to protecting our water resources, as well as forests, wildlife and many other environmental features. They recharge our aquifers, filter out pollutants before they reach our waters, protect our homes from flooding and provide critical habitat.

Recently, the Florida Conservation Coalition, of which I am founding member, unanimously approved and released "The Critical Need to Conserve Florida's Natural Lands," which details the adequacies and missed opportunities of current budget proposals. The report recommends three actions for Florida's leaders:

1. Authorize the sale of Florida Forever bonds to generate the funding necessary to acquire priority large-scale projects now, before prices increase or important lands are lost permanently to development.

2. Pass legislation that guarantees sufficient annual funding to land conservation programs each and every year, like what is already in place for Everglades restoration programs.

3. Restore water management district ad valorem tax rates to fund the acquisition, management, and restoration of lands important for protecting water quality and supply.

Funding land conservation is one thing we cannot put off until next year. The 2019 legislative session ends May 3. Please call your legislators and let them know you want to see a stronger funding proposal to meet Florida's land conservation needs.

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

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