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Recharging Florida Forever

"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.

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.

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."

Buy, buy

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.