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Public Land Conservation: Florida Forever

Protecting natural lands is necessary for the “ecological health and open space needs” of our state but the job of acquiring those lands is not done. Unfortunately, the process is at a standstill: Florida Forever is again unfunded.

The Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has helped protect many of Florida’s premier conservation lands over the last 50 years, especially with the help the last two decades of Florida’s revolutionary land conservation programs Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. The success of these two programs has made fast-growing Florida a national leader in conservation. Looking back, the Conservancy takes pride in the role Florida Chapter staff and trustees played in making state-funded conservation land acquisition a reality.  

The success of these two programs has made fast-growing Florida a national leader in conservation. Looking back, the Conservancy takes pride in the role Florida Chapter staff and trustees played in making state-funded conservation land acquisition a reality. 

As the effort to publicly fund conservation gained momentum more than 20 years ago, the plan being outlined seemed outrageous. Gov. Bob Martinez’s Commission on the Future of Florida’s Environment was holding meetings around the state attended by citizens from all walks of life. State agencies had submitted lists of the lands they saw as critical to acquire. Floridians made it clear they wanted to protect their environmental future by acquiring these “must-have” properties.

Longtime Florida Nature Conservancy Trustee Joe Hixon was part of that exciting heyday and is thankful about how far-sighted the designers were, including former Florida Nature Conservancy Director John Flicker and fellow Trustee Jim Swann.

“That we decided to ask for $300 million a year for 10 years — $3 billion — was very shocking because it was so far beyond anything we could conceive of at the time,” said Hixon, a member of the governor’s commission. The commission recommended that protecting those lands was necessary for the “ecological health and open space needs” for our state. The single most effective way to do that, the commission said, was to substantially increase the level of funding and purchase those lands now.

“It helped tremendously that we had a specific funding source and didn’t take from general revenue,” Hixon said about how the program named Preservation 2000 was born. The novel funding method — taking a small percentage of the money collected from real estate transactions called documentary stamps— continued in the follow-up to P2000 called Florida Forever. It was created in 2001 to again provide $3 billion for conservation over 10 years. Florida Forever was reauthorized in 2008 for $300 million annually for another 10 years.

Under P2000 and Florida Forever, Florida has protected more than 2.4 million acres of land. By borrowing today and using long-term documentary stamp tax revenue to pay future debt obligations, these programs have allowed Floridians to protect the most important, most threatened parcels today while providing that future Floridians share the cost.

The Nature Conservancy over the years has recommended to the state parcels for protection and scientifically documented the species found there. The Conservancy has also worked collaboratively with the state under both programs to acquire hundreds of key parcels, securing options on the land for purchase with state funds.

Unfortunately the job of acquiring those lands is not done, and the Governor and Legislature have significantly reduced the funding for Florida Forever and other Land Protection Programs.

Hixon and others are hopeful that the legislature will continue to fund Florida Forever. We need to tie our “accomplishments” together and connect large areas already protected, he said, avoiding the “island effect” when conservation lands are separated by development that is so harmful to species.

“The people of Florida and the government deserve huge credit for what’s been done, doing more than even the federal government has done in the same amount of time. Now we have a chance to finish out the program,” Hixon said of the need to continue to fund Florida Forever.

Florida’s $65 billion annual tourism industry is inextricably linked to the utilization and enjoyment of our state’s natural resources. There are numerous other economic benefits of Florida’s history of land conservation, including agriculture, ranching, forestry and recreation.  

Florida Forever and its predecessor P2000 have accomplished a great deal. Yet, there remains much to be done. Our continued commitment to conservation will ensure that clean water, productive farmland and the essential health benefits of Florida’s natural resources can be realized by every resident today, millions of future residents, and by our many visitors throughout the year.

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