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House Likely to Pursue Limited Land Buying

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Posted at 5:09 PM, Mar 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-16 13:13:02-04

TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - A House committee that crafted a newly approved water-policy plan is now looking at how a voter-approved increase in conservation dollars should be used for land management.

Just don't anticipate a splurge on land buying, such as spending about $350 million on a proposal to purchase U.S. Sugar land in the Everglades.

House State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said Friday he expects his committee will direct the use of so-called "Amendment 1" dollars more toward managing land already publicly owned rather than simply buying more. 

"We do own a substantial amount of land already, and when you combine that with the federal level, you can see we've got a lot of public property already," said Caldwell, who spearheaded a wide-ranging water policy proposal (HB 7003) approved Thursday by the House.

"There is still going to be possibilities for more," Caldwell added. "Those springs that are available for purchase, I'd love to see those bought and made state parks, obviously. But in the large mosaics, less than fee ownership, conservation easements that allow the continuation of ag activities, those are things that I'd love to see us prioritize. It's a fact that the center of the state is the second largest population of bald eagles precisely because it's all ranch land and they flourish there."

Both chambers are working on multi-pronged approaches to implement a constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, which lays out for 20 years an increase in funding for land and water conservation.

The amendment, overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, requires 33 percent of the proceeds from a real-estate tax to go for land and water projects. The funding level is projected to generate $757 million in next year's budget for the state's land and water needs, more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

The House approach appears to at least partly conflict with the Amendment 1 priorities of environmental groups. The group Florida's Land and Water Legacy, which led the amendment drive, has presented lawmakers with an outline that includes using $90 million for land management, $150 million for Everglades and South Florida estuaries and another $150 million for the Florida Forever program for land acquisition, springs and trails. 

Ultimately, the House and Senate will have to come to agreement on Amendment 1 spending and on water-policy issues. Environmentalists also have been critical of the water-policy bill approved by the House this week.

Caldwell's committee requested that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection create a detailed map outlining all government-owned land in Florida as well as property held by environmental trusts.

He said the committee might also consider ways for the state to work with the federal government to increase the eradication of invasive species.

"The Everglades mosaic is one I'm most familiar with," Caldwell said. "We don't manage the national park. We don't manage the Big Cypress Preserve. We manage our lands that abut (the federal parks), and there is no doubt we have got real problems. What's the point in saving the Everglades if it's taken over by pythons, Brazilian pepper and melaleuca. There is nothing left for anybody to enjoy at that point." 

Kelley Boree, director of the Division of State Lands in the Department of Environmental Protection, estimated that about 27 percent of the state is already in public hands, through state, federal and local ownership.

For the H2O Coalition, led by the business advocacy group Associated Industry of Florida, that's enough. 

The coalition, which backed the House water policy approved this week, has been urging lawmakers against using Amendment 1 dollars for land purchases.

"Floridians do not want the funding priorities under Amendment 1 to just reflect the narrow interests of certain environmental advocacy groups," Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of AIF, said in a release that accompanied a new television and radio campaign the coalition stared to run this week in Tallahassee.

The concept of the constitutional amendment was spawned as funding diminished for the Florida Forever program.

Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from the documentary-stamp real-estate taxes, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation. But as the economy went sour during the recent recession, so did funding for Florida Forever.