1. Opinion

Column: Use Amendment 1 money as intended — to conserve Florida's natural land

Changes to Senate Bill 10, which aims to restore the flow of water into Everglades National Park, would divert billions in Amendment 1 money away from intended uses.
Changes to Senate Bill 10, which aims to restore the flow of water into Everglades National Park, would divert billions in Amendment 1 money away from intended uses.
Published Mar. 15, 2017

Last week the Florida Senate betrayed the intent of Florida voters who overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment, in 2014.

Changes to Senate Bill 10, Senate President Joe Negron's laudable effort to prevent damaging Lake Okeechobee discharges and restore the flow of water into Everglades National Park, would divert billions of dollars from the pot of money created by Amendment 1 away from its intended use of protecting conservation lands through programs like Florida Forever and toward water infrastructure projects that should, and historically have, been paid for through other means. In doing so, the amended bill eliminates the possibility of bonding for Florida Forever in the future.

Water infrastructure projects often spur additional development into rural areas, speeding up the loss of land Florida should be protecting. It would be tragic for Florida's environment and Florida's citizens if the very amendment meant to protect rural and natural lands became the source of their destruction.

For this reason, and despite the good intention of the bill's supporters in and out of the Legislature, all those who voted for Amendment 1 in 2014 should oppose the current version of Senate Bill 10.

Last year 1000 Friends of Florida, the University of Florida's Geoplan Center and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued the Florida 2070 report, which found that more than 5 million acres of natural and agricultural lands will be permanently lost to development over the next 50 years if current growth patterns continue. It is therefore essential that we protect lands with high conservation value now, with the funds dedicated for this exact purpose by Amendment 1, or we will lose these lands forever.

Florida is fortunate to have a fantastic, science-driven process for conserving lands through the Florida Forever program and the Acquisition and Restoration Council. The only thing this process has been missing recently is funding.

For decades politicians from both parties and every part of Florida understood the importance of funding programs to conserve rural and natural lands for future generations. This is exactly what Florida Forever does.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush understood the importance of conserving rural and natural lands when he signed Florida Forever into law in 1999, stating, "Out of 500 pieces of legislation that passed, this has to be the most significant in terms of legislation that impacts the citizens of Florida."

But in recent years, land conservation funding through Florida Forever has been slashed by more than 90 percent. That is why Florida's conservation community united to restore Florida Forever funding. This is exactly what Florida voters intended Amendment 1 to do.

The record is clear:

Former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham stated, "The whole purpose of Amendment 1 was to reverse the drastic cuts in the Florida Forever program."

Former state senator and current state Rep. Thad Altman said, "The fact that Florida Forever was discontinued was the motivation for Amendment 1."

Even the New York Times wrote, "The amendment was intended to bolster a popular conservation program, Florida Forever, that had been hit hard by state budget cuts."

Unfortunately, the importance of conserving natural lands and the intention of Amendment 1 seem to have been forgotten in the effort to pass Senate Bill 10.

There is no doubt that our state has woefully underfunded water infrastructure projects needed to protect natural systems and develop additional water supplies. This was no accident. Florida's five water management districts were given the ability to levy taxes by Florida voters in 1976 in order to fund water projects. But, beginning in 2011, the governor and Legislature aided and abetted in the wholesale butchery of district budgets.

Now some legislators want to raid Amendment 1 to fill the void in funding for water projects that previous Legislatures created. The answer to funding water infrastructure projects already exists and doesn't require one dime of Amendment 1 funding: Restore the water management district budgets to pre-2011 levels.

Florida voters intended Amendment 1, first and foremost, to restore Florida Forever funding. They also intended it to restore the flow of fresh water to America's Everglades and protect coastal estuaries. These are not conflicting, but complementary, goals and the Senate is wrong for pitting one against the other. They can, and must, do better. They can, and must, do both.

The Senate should drop the damaging amendment adopted last week and offer the people of Florida exactly what they voted for in 2014: immediate funding to purchase lands south of Lake Okeechobee, and a guarantee that from now until the end of Amendment 1 no less than 25 percent of the dollars set aside by voters in 2014 will go toward protecting conservation lands through the Florida Forever and Florida Communities Trust programs.

Ryan Smart is president of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1986 to help build better communities and save special places. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.