by Jim Turner
The News Service of Florida
Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet could spend about $8.5 million next week to conserve thousands of acres of land owned for decades by two ranching families.
Such deals have become a widely used strategy in recent years to protect land from development.
But the program that would pay for the deals in Okeechobee and Highlands counties — known as the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program — could be out of money by 2018, even with funds carried over from the current year’s budget.
“You’ll see easements (proposed for conservation) until at least until the end of this calendar year,” John Browne, land programs administrator for the Florida Forest Service, told aides to Scott and the Cabinet during a meeting Wednesday. “After that, it will be kind of questionable.”
Browne said after the meeting he isn’t concerned about the future of the program.
“The constituency that we support, they’re very open about it, they love the program, they will continue to lobby, we’ll continue to push for it,” Browne said. “This just happened to be a year where there were other things that were determined to be more important.”
In the 2017-2018 budget recently approved by the Legislature, $10 million is set aside for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and nothing for the Florida Forever land-acquisition program, which once got $300 million a year. The budget remains subject to Scott’s approval.
Florida voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that was designed to set aside money for land and water conservation. A large chunk of money in the new budget would go into a reservoir (SB 10) and other Everglades work totaling $155 million. Money would also go to beach projects and maintaining the state’s natural springs.
Another $170 million would go to debt payments, while agency operations would get $28 million and staff salaries and benefits would take up $164 million.
“I don’t buy the theory that it’s the Everglades bill that is the reason the Legislature couldn’t fund land conservation,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist.
The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, a favorite of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has been used 35 times to secure 36,706 acres across the state.
Draper said those are the kinds of conservation efforts voters thought they were approving with the 2014 constitutional amendment. The ballot initiative designated 33 percent of an existing real estate tax to go toward land and water conservation efforts.
“This is a real problem,” Draper said about a potential shortage of funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. “Florida is developing very quickly, and these landowners have a choice: `Do I develop the land or do I try and hold on to it in difficult economic circumstances or do I try to wait until the state can come up with some money and provide an easement?’ ”
Deals are typically structured as conservation easements, which restrict future development while allowing existing landowners to continue using the property for such things as agriculture.
Browne said without money to set up additional easement deals, the state agency’s focus will be on keeping an eye on the land that has already been set aside.
The proposals going before Scott and the Cabinet on Tuesday involve more than 5,000 acres of ranch land, stretched over two parcels north of Lake Okeechobee.
The parcels — 4,177 acres in Okeechobee County and 1,034 acres in Highlands County — could help control the quality of water entering Lake Okeechobee from the north.
The Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee County, a cow and calf operation owned by the Scott family since 1948, sits about 25 miles west of Ft. Pierce and is within the recharge range for the Kissimmee River basin.
The Highlands County land, owned by the Hartt family since 1939, drains into the Arbuckle Creek, which eventually flows into Lake Okeechobee. Used as a cow and calf operation, the land also provides buffer to the Avon Park Air Force Range.
The deals would leave the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program with about $11 million for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2017.
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