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  1. Opinion

Column: Why is the Florida Legislature ignoring the people's will and putting conservation programs on the chopping block?

Ranchers gather cattle for summer shipping on Limestone Creek Ranch in Hardee County, a property listed for a conservation easement through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
Ranchers gather cattle for summer shipping on Limestone Creek Ranch in Hardee County, a property listed for a conservation easement through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.
Published Apr. 3, 2017

Our legislators sent a clear message to the citizens of Florida last week: They care far less than we do about protecting the places we love and ensuring a sustainable, high quality of life. They demonstrated this lack of concern when they all but eliminated funding for land and water conservation.

While spending the week in the capital educating officials about the value of Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, I sat in on an agricultural and natural resources appropriations meeting and heard banter about limiting government spending to only "essential services."

In response, the House budget completely zeroed out funding for both programs, while the Senate budget included just over $22 million combined for land protection programs. This equates to 0.2 percent of the transportation budget. It is unacceptable that we will readily spend $10 billion on the gray infrastructure of roads but won't invest 1 percent of that on the green infrastructure of land conservation through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. What could be more essential than protecting the lands and waters that support you and your family?

Imagine our state without iconic "Fresh from Florida" products like orange juice, strawberries and beef. Or where our state animal — the Florida panther — is relegated to a small, unsustainable living area.

As our human population grows by 1,000 people per day, it is critical that we adequately invest in programs that protect our most valuable natural and agricultural lands and waters before they're gobbled up by development. We have that opportunity now through Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. What we lack is the political will to fully invest in these essential programs.

Both programs include economically viable initiatives for protecting our most valuable natural and agricultural lands. Conservation easements provide compensation to landowners to sell future development rights at a fraction of the cost of land acquisition. This means that ranches and farms can remain in their current state and continue to provide valuable ecosystem services that benefit all Floridians. Conservation easements have been widely embraced by both the conservation and ranching communities, as well as some legislators.

Our current administration has expressed its dislike for adding more land to the government ledger, due to ongoing maintenance requirements. That is why conservation easements are so attractive. Lands stay in private ownership, on the government tax rolls and are managed in perpetuity without taxpayer dollars. In addition to supporting working families and rural economies, easements on working lands:

• Enhance food security by retaining productive farms and ranches;

• Maintain and improve freshwater resources, and;

• Provide land and water connectivity for wildlife.

Last week we also celebrated major victories for endangered species in our state. Florida panther kittens were documented north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in more than four decades. The big cats rely upon publicly owned areas, like the Everglades National Park, and privately owned cattle ranches in the Greater Everglades. Public-private partnerships have been forged with ranchers and conservation groups to protect these critical areas and expand the habitat range of this iconic species.

With significant debate about the future of the Everglades and how to address both shortages of freshwater and pollution of our coastal waterways, the question shouldn't be whether to fund land protection or water protection, but rather how to adequately fund both. Natural and agricultural lands that include wetlands and other habitats store and naturally treat freshwater, reducing the need for artificially created reservoirs, pumps and pipes.

Pavement doesn't percolate water, so the more we can preserve both lands and waters, the better we can address our current and future needs for clean and abundant freshwater. The focus needs to be on adequately funding comprehensive conservation policies that are already in place to protect both lands and waters.

The voters can and should keep our elected officials accountable. In 2014, nearly 75 percent of Floridians voted for Amendment 1 to allocate 33 percent of doc stamp revenue toward land and water conservation. This is the time to demand full funding of Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to justly spend the growing funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

These programs have a proven track record of success and public support. Your elected representatives should reflect the will of the people — and invest $100 million each in Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

Lindsay Cross is the executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a conservation advocacy organization that champions the public and partner support needed to permanently connect, protect and restore a statewide network of lands and waters that supports wildlife and people. She holds a master's in environmental science and policy from the University of South Florida and is a graduate of the Florida Natural Resources Leadership Institute.

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