Recharging Florida Forever
Rising land prices and a flat budget have eroded the state's leading conservation program.
Florida has on its side the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) and the Nature Conservancy. Both non-profits have flexibility and money the state doesn't have. TPL acts a lot like a business, even flying its agents to meet with distant landowners to make deals, as opposed to the document-centered methods of the state. The Conservancy holds and manages conservation lands. It is spending about $50 million for purchases in Florida this year, says Fountain, including $6 million for a tract on the Florida Forever list, the Bombing Range Ridge near Avon Park. A site north of Lake Okeechobee, which is on the South Florida Water Management District list but which the district can't afford because of its heavy Everglades expenditures, will be bought for resale to the district in 2008.
The money squeeze hits local governments, too. They get $66 million of the $300 million a year through matching grants from the state's Florida Community Trust (FCT).
Ken Reecy, who administers the FCT grants, says applications this year soared by about a third, to $241 million. "People want green space. They want parks, quality of life, beach access and river access," he says. "A lot of really good programs are not making the cut."
A $1.2-billion increase in Florida Forever could be financed by giving it the same share of the doc-stamp revenue that it first received under Gov. Bob Martinez in 1990.
Martinez allocated 40% of the docstamp money to support the $300 million a year in bonds for what was then Preservation 2000. Today, the $300 million consumes just 8%, says Greg Chelius, Florida director of the Trust for Public Lands.
We also could consider condemnation of critical properties. The governor and Cabinet have eschewed such an approach, but the threat could discourage developers from bidding up prices on sensitive lands.
Why not just regulate use of the land and save our money? The political reason is that regulation of land is not part of the political consensus over conservation. Besides, Lee says his 34 years with Audubon have taught the "painful lesson" that "regulation is a very transitory thing" that can be undone in a few years when the next developer comes along.
Florida simply has to buy more land faster. It won't wait forever.