Ron Cunningham: Land grab
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 6:54 p.m.
"Buy land," Will Rogers advised, "They ain't making any more of the stuff."
For about half a century, Florida's five water management districts have been doing exactly that.
On the very sensible presumption that you can't manage water if you don't manage at least some of the land that it falls on, flows over or sinks into.
But that was back when the main mission of the water management districts was managing water.
Now it's tax relief.
And having slashed millage so as to give homeowners a $5 or $6 a year break, the districts are now getting into the land disposal business to help balance their budgets.
For example, the Suwannee River district is swapping 670 acres of land in the Twin Rivers State Forest, near Ellaville — not far from where the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers meet — in exchange for 585 acres on the Suwannee owned by the Damascus Peanut Company.
On paper — the district's staff-generated paper, that is — it's a great deal because the Ellaville land has been deemed "No longer needed" for conservation purposes.
One might argue that point, given a Florida Fish and Wildlife assessment that the tract supports a "large, healthy population of gopher tortoises as well as a number of other imperiled and rare wildlife species."
But to be fair, wildlife conservation isn't the water management district's job.
Tax relief is.
There is some irony in the staff's observation that while the Ellaville property has little or no water conservation value, it is "in high demand for conversion to agricultural use."
Agriculture being the single largest consumer and polluter of water in Florida.
Audubon Florida took issue with the district's "No longer needed" assessment. But the wisdom of this particular swap aside, there is cause to worry that this is just the beginning of a wholesale transfer of public conservation lands into private ownership.
"As you start to slide down a slippery slope, it is sometimes hard to know where the dangerous part of the slide starts," Charles Lee, of Audubon Florida, told the online news service Florida Current. "We are clearly on a slippery slope with land surplusing and the slide is beginning to appear dangerous."
For decades — since at least the Reubin Askew era — Florida has done a better job of investing in and preserving natural lands than any state in America.
But all that means to our current crop of politicians — the ones who killed the Florida Forever fund — is that the state now has a nice "surplus" of prime real estate with which to do deals.
Which is why an impressive coalition of environmental groups have launched Florida's Water and Land Legacy campaign. Its goal is to get a state constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot that, if approved by the voters, would force the politicians to continue to invest in conservation (www.FloridaWaterLandLegacy.org).
And that's a good idea, really.
Because the thing about land is, "they ain't making the stuff anymore."