Environmentalists cite need for more conservation money

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 11:56 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Citing rising land costs and an expanding population, environmental groups said Wednesday that Florida needs another $18 billion to conserve critical lands and build more parks and recreation areas for its residents.
The assessment is based on two reports from a coalition of environmental groups, the Florida Recreation and Park Association and the Florida League of Cities.
One report, coordinated by The Nature Conservancy, identified the need to acquire 2 million acres of environmentally critical land at a cost of $10 billion to protect natural habitats and water resources and provide more recreational land across the state.
The other report, which was co-produced by The Trust for Public Land, recreation and park officials and city governments, highlighted an $8.3 billion need for local parks and other recreational facilities, ranging from bike paths to swimming pools.
The report, which was based on a survey of 60 percent of the local park departments, identified a need for $2.58 billion in land acquisition; $1.9 billion for renovations and repairs; and $3.8 billion for new facilities.
Lawmakers are not going to come up with an additional $18 billion in their new budget for conservation programs, but environmentalists and legislative leaders say the reports underscore the need to re-evaluate the state's land-buying efforts. Florida Forever, the linchpin of the state's conservation efforts, produces about $300 million a year for land acquisition. The program is at the midpoint of its 10-year life, with environmentalists and some key lawmakers saying the funding is not keeping up with rising land costs.
Senate Environmental Preservation Committee Chairman Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, whose committee is reviewing the state's land-buying programs, said the state needs to use the same foresight that was employed in creating Preservation 2000, the 1990 program that preceded Florida Forever.
Due to those programs and few others, such as Save Our Rivers, the state has acquired 2.2 million acres of critical land over the last decade and a half. "We're growing so fast in Florida and the land values are going up so quickly that had we not undertaken this effort 15 years ago we wouldn't have all this land in public ownership that we have today," Dockery said.
She said although Florida Forever has played a vital role in acquiring land, the $300 million it produces annually "is not going nearly as far today" as it did under prior conservation programs. As an example, Dockery said the governor and lawmakers are looking at paying for the $350 million Babcock Ranch purchase in Southwest Florida by using funding outside of the existing Florida Forever program.
During the 60-day session that begins in March, Dockery said in addition to finding funding for the Babcock purchase and continuing the Florida Forever program, she hopes to begin discussing a new land-buying initiative that could eventually replace Florida Forever, which expires in 2010.
She said one option could be accelerating purchases under the Florida Forever program and replacing it sooner than 2010.
Meanwhile, the new reports emphasized that time is not an ally when it comes to land conservation. "As the cost of land increases, the ability of government agencies and nonprofit organizations to protect open spaces decreases," a summary said.
Other members of the coalition include Audubon of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, 1,000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife and the Alliance of Florida Land Trusts.

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