The cost of land conservation


Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 2:56 p.m.

Barr Hammock Preserve encompasses everything that makes land conservation important.

It also shows the long, costly process that it takes to protect environmentally significant land from development — and the need to keep paying for those efforts.

The Alachua County Forever land conservation program used funding approved by local voters in combination with state, federal and private contributions to piece together the preserve over several years. It totals more than 5,700 acres, the largest property acquired by the program.

The program's goal is preserving land that is big, wet, wild and connected. The preserve fits all those descriptions. It includes a variety of habitat, is adjacent to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and contains two large wetlands of its own, Ledwith and Levy prairies.

A trail, opened in February, sits atop a levy that loops around part of Levy Prairie west of Interstate 75. Plans are underway for another trail leading from Southwest 175th Avenue to Ledwith Prairie — a wet haven for wading birds and other wildlife that has been accurately described as a miniature Paynes Prairie

Alachua County Forever has by all accounts been successful and popular. County voters passed a property tax increase to fund the program in 2000. They approved Wild Spaces and Public Places — a sales tax increase to fund additional land conservation along with recreation projects — in 2008.

Those measures generated about $75 million for land conservation. But nearly $100 million in land has been bought by also obtaining money from the state, which has its own Florida Forever program, and other sources. About 22,000 acres have been preserved in all in the county.

Alachua County Forever gets about $800,000 annually to run the program and manage all that land, a small part of a $133 million county general fund budget. As for money for land purchases, the program is down to less than $100,000 in uncommitted funds.

State funding for land conservation also has dwindled, as shown by the state's plans to sell off pieces of its land to generate money to buy more important properties. Three properties in Alachua County — two in Paynes Prairie and one in San Felasco Hammock State Park — were on the list of land for sale.

Apparently, the state failed to do the research to find that a ranger station was on the San Felasco property, which has been tentatively removed from the list. The Paynes Prarie properties, including one along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, remain on it.

If voters value conservation enough that they don't think a yard sale should be conducted for pieces of our preserves, they have a chance to show it.

The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment would allocate one-third of net revenues from an existing fee on real estate transfers to land conservation. But 683,149 signatures first need to be collected to place the measure on the fall 2014 ballot (petitions can be found at www.floridawaterlandlegacy.org).

County voters might not get another chance soon to fund local land conservation, with the current focus being on a transportation initiative. So, enjoy the opening of Barr Hammock's trails for now, but remember that the bill for additional conservation will eventually need to be paid if we want to continue protecting such important land.

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