Recharging Florida Forever
Rising land prices and a flat budget have eroded the state's leading conservation program.
"Florida forever," the land-conservation program that is a model for the nation, is losing ground.
Except for a special infusion this year for the Everglades and the Babcock Ranch, the state has been spending the same amount, $300 million, every year for 17 years. Meanwhile, the total state budget has tripled, and so have land prices in the state. The value of property on the state's priority acquisition list has risen to $7 billion, says state lands director Eva Armstrong. The Florida Forever Coalition, comprising most of the state's leading environmental groups, says more than $18 billion in land still needs to be preserved for environmental protection, water management and local parks and open space.
A recent addition to the state parks system: Springs along the Withlacoochee River.
"Forever" is starting to look like how long it will take to get the job done.
"We've been losing ground every year," says longtime Audubon Society lobbyist Charles Lee. Developers, with fewer bureaucratic procedures and a willingness to pay premium prices, are snatching more and more land away.
"When they're gone, they're gone forever," says Duane De Freese, who has long experience in environmental preservation in central Florida and now heads the Florida research center of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute.
With real estate temporarily in the doldrums, a $1.5-billion commitment to Florida Forever by Florida's next governor for the next 10 years would be great for the economy and great investment timing. Nothing else the governor could do would have the breadth of public support, the ease of execution and the clear return on investment that such an ambitious new Florida Forever initiative would have.
The governor-elect should expect the immediate support from incoming House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has been soliciting "100 innovative ideas" for Florida's future, and from incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt, whose home district touches the Everglades and the long Atlantic coastline of the Treasure Coast. Here's a great opportunity for each of these legislative leaders to put the state's money where his mouth is.
Buying land for preservation may be the most enduringly popular government program in Florida. Environmentalists love Florida Forever because the purchases permanently remove land from development, which regulations don't. Property-rights advocates love it because it relies on the free market and willing sellers. Local referendums on new taxes for land conservation almost always pass.
Governors from both parties for more than 40 years have been strong advocates of conserving environmentally sensitive lands. The only unpopular thing about the programs happened in 1963, when the modern land-conservation effort was launched with a "bathing suit tax" on outdoor clothing and equipment. In 1968, under Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, that tax gave way to reliance on the documentary stamp tax, collected on every land transaction in the state.
The governor and Cabinet, which oversee Florida Forever, have insisted on careful bargaining. "We never negotiate for full value," says Armstrong. The state has lost out sometimes because of an unwillingness to compete with developers.