TALLAHASSEE - A request is on the desk of Gov. Rick Scott to replenish the state's most prominent land-preservation fund.
The Department of Environmental Protection's wish list for the 2018-2019 fiscal year - presented to Scott last week as the governor's office crafts budget recommendations for the Legislature - includes $50 million for the Florida Forever program.
“It's a bigger number, it's a different focus than what we've had from DEP for six or seven years,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist.
The department's proposals also include $50 million for programs to improve water quality and drinking water quantity. Another $50 million would go to support state parks.
Department spokeswoman Lauren Engel said the Florida Forever funding is expected to help the state “acquire rare and sensitive lands that will benefit our communities and environment.”
“We are proud of our recent successful acquisitions, including the Blue Spring and Horn Spring parcels, among others,” Engel said, referring to deals in Gilchrist County and in Leon and Jefferson counties.
Engel also noted that the proposed amount for water projects typically will go up as legislators pitch individual projects.
Already Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a measure for 2018 (SB 204) that would lead to the state spending at least $75 million a year on springs projects and $50 million annually on projects related to the restoration of the St. Johns River and its tributaries or the Keystone Heights Lake Region.
Scott will recommend his proposed 2018-2019 budget later this year, with the 60-day regular session beginning in January. His office hasn't given a date for the budget release.
Environmentalists called the proposed Florida Forever funding a “welcome sign” the state agency has a renewed commitment to buying important conservation lands.
But they would like to see a more long-term commitment from lawmakers under a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires setting aside a portion of documentary-stamp taxes for land and water conservation.
Environmental groups contend that lawmakers have improperly used part of the money for staff salaries and agency expenses rather than conservation - a contention that Republican legislative leaders dispute.
“It is good to see DEP step back into an advocacy role when it comes to Florida Forever. But $50 million isn't nearly what voters expected when they approved the Water and Land Conservation Amendment in 2014,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “I hope the governor and Legislature take this recommendation as a starting point and commit to a comprehensive and dedicated funding stream for the remainder of the amendment.”
Florida Forever in the past offered up to $300 million annually for land preservation but has been scaled back in recent years.
Initially, that occurred during the recession. Later, as the economy recovered and without renewed funding from the
Legislature, Scott and the Cabinet opted more often to use a preservation method - known as acquiring conservation easements - preferred by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Under conservation easements, land is protected from development, but farmers and ranchers typically can continue to use the property. Putnam has backed using the state's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program in acquiring easements.
While the 2014 conservation ballot initiative was successful, some influential legislators continue to question the need for Florida to acquire more land, noting struggles to manage the property already in the state's inventory.
However, in the past year, Scott and the Cabinet have started to dip into money that has sat for years in the Florida Forever program.
In June, $15 million was used to buy 407 acres in Gilchrist County - preserving a cluster of natural springs - and to protect 6,071 acres of agricultural land in Polk and Hardee counties.
The state also used Florida Forever for a $4.5 million purchase in March of more 465 acres to help protect Silver Springs in Marion County and a $16.1 million deal in October to acquire 11,027 acres of land known as the Horn Spring property in Leon and Jefferson counties.
About $60 million is currently in the fund, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, appointed to the position May 23, has expressed a desire to continue using the money.
With Scott expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, Valenstein was an architect of Scott's conservation platform during the 2014 gubernatorial election. The platform called for a 10-year, $1 billion environmental blueprint that lined up in places with the constitutional amendment approved that year.
Draper said conservationists have been lobbying Valenstein to increase funding levels for land maintenance and preservation.
The 2017-2018 state budget, crafted before Valenstein moved to the Department of Environmental Protection from the Suwannee River Water Management District includes $10 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and nothing for Florida Forever.