By the end of the month, the state of Florida will release a list of public lands it’s considering selling. This year’s state budget requires the state to sell some property before it can purchase an equally valuable amount of conservation land.
This year’s budget allows the state to purchase up to $70 million dollars’ worth land to protect, but only if it first sells $50 million dollars’ worth of land. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Pat Gillespie says the state will put the highest priority on protecting water quality and springs. He says before any of the state’s nearly 5 million acres of conservation land is sold, it’ll all go through a scoring process according to criteria developed by by groups including the Nature Conservancy and the Florida League of Cities and then run through a scoring model developed by the environmental conservation group, the Trust for Public Land.
Gillespie says, “If there’s land that we think is marketable, based on the weighted criteria, scores lower than the higher-weighted criteria, then certainly those will be the types of parcels, but in terms of specific parcels or where in the state, we’re not at that point yet.”
The state budget line item for conservation land purchasing has been slashed in recent years. Environmental groups unhappy with the lack of funding are gathering signatures to push for a constitutional amendment earmarking a third of the tax revenue from property exchanges for land acquisition. Aliki Moncreif is field director for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, the group leading the campaign.
“It gives me some comfort that the environmental community has been invited to have a voice in the process," she says.
But Moncreif says the scientific criteria used to evaluate whether to purchase the lands in the first place haven’t changed.
“By and large the reason the state of Florida acquired these lands is because we need them. We need them to protect drinking water supplies, we need them for wildlife habitats, whatever the case may be," she says.
The proposed amendment would earmark an estimated $625 million dollars annually for acquiring new conservation land. Until 2009, the Florida Forever land acquisition program was operating with a yearly budget of less than half that: $300 million. The program was defunded entirely to help the state balance its books during the recession, but funding for it has been partially restored this year.
The state will hold a public hearing later this month in Tallahassee to discuss the proposed land sales. Public workshops across the state will follow before any sale is finalized.
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Correction: A previous version of this story said the Trust for Public Land developed the land-scoring criteria. That group used criteria other groups developed to run the lands through its own scoring model.