(NSF/TALLAHASSEE, FL/March 27, 2023) — A House panel Monday rolled out a proposal that could help speed up land acquisitions for a proposed statewide wildlife corridor by allowing some deals to bypass approval from the governor and Cabinet.
The House Agriculture, Conservation & Resiliency Subcommittee backed the proposal (PCB ACR 23-01), which, in part, would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to sign off on land buys up to $5 million without waiting for the governor and Cabinet to meet.
Currently, the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, vote on all land deals topping $1 million.
Subcommittee Chairman James Buchanan, R-Osprey, said the bill would prioritize acquiring land at risk of development or within the footprint of the proposed 18 million-acre wildlife corridor, which is expected to link lands from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle.
“This is streamlining the process in a big way and cutting down on the timeframe,” Buchanan said.
A 2021 law, known as the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, called for pumping $300 million a year into the corridor effort, with about 8 million acres needing to be secured. Lawmakers have a goal of acquiring 900,000 of the needed acres by the end of the decade.
The Senate on March 8 passed a bill (SB 106) that calls for a one-time $200 million expenditure next fiscal year to link bicycle and hiking trails to the corridor. That bill is pending in the House.
The bill approved Monday by the House panel also would direct $100 million a year to the Department of Environmental Protection for the Florida Forever conservation program. That money would come from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
“One thing that was talked about is making sure of consistency in funding over time. That’s one thing we’re doing in this bill,” Buchanan said.
The Land Acquisition Trust Fund receives money through a 2014 constitutional amendment that requires one-third of the revenue from documentary-stamp taxes on real estate transactions go to land conservation.
Will Abberger, director of The Trust for Public Land, said dedicating $100 million a year to land preservation is “a great start.”
Abberger said he would like to see something closer to the full $251 million for land acquisition that was included in an initial House budget proposal for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. More than a decade ago, $300 million a year was directed into the Florida Forever program.
“Having consistent predictable funding is critically important for meeting these goals,” Abberger said.
An initial Senate budget proposal would provide $542 million for land-acquisition programs, including $300 million for conservation easements. Such easements protect land from development while often allowing farming or ranching operations to continue.
Lawmakers have designated portions of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund money to various work across the state, with at least $200 million a year for Everglades restoration projects, $64 million to an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project, $50 million for a Lake Okeechobee watershed restoration project, $50 million for natural springs and $5 million for Lake Apopka.
By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida