Recharging Florida Forever
Rising land prices and a flat budget have eroded the state's leading conservation program.
Missing the Cut
During the Bush years alone, Florida Forever has acquired more than 1.1 million acres. But a lot is left to buy.
Land purchases in the ongoing Everglades restoration, for example, are funded largely through the South Florida Water Management District's share of Florida Forever. The Wekiva-Ocala Greenway north of Orlando connects the Wekiva River basin and the Ocala National Forest to protect the black bear and other species. Several areas are awaiting acquisition in southwest Florida as habitat for the Florida panther. The 28,000-acre Pine Island Slough near Yeehaw Junction would connect preserved areas along the Kissimmee and St. Johns rivers. All over Florida are unbought smaller parcels within larger projects.
The program also buys development rights through "conservation easements" while landowners continue to use the land for agriculture, timber or the like.
But, says Keith Fountain, director of protection in Florida for The Nature Conservancy, "the program can no longer buy the large tracts in any one year."
The frenzied deal making over Babcock Ranch, a triumph for Florida Forever, also illustrates its decline. In 2005, faced with imminent development as Babcock heirs sought to cash out, the governor and Cabinet approved the purchase of 74,000 acres to secure the last big piece of a water-recharge area and wildlife habitat stretching from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. The deal left 17,000 acres for private development. But the $310-million state share (Lee County kicked in $40 million) would have swallowed the entire Florida Forever budget for the year. The Legislature saved the day with a special appropriation that also included an extra $135 million for Everglades purchases.
More deals like Babcock seem likely. Newland Communities, for example, is buying Lenholt Farms within the Wekiva- Ocala Greenway area, but environmentalists are opposing Newland's requested zoning change for more homes. Lee of the Audubon Society says he is "hopeful" a Babcock-style deal can still be struck.