Getting State Land For A Song And A Promise

Apr 7, 2015

Convinced the state is setting aside too many acres for conservation, some conservative lawmakers want to blur the distinction between private and public land. As Jim Ash reports, plans are in the works to open up public preserves for so called “low impact” agriculture.

Like his fellow conservative Republicans, Representative Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers thinks the state can do a better job with the 12 million acres of land it owns.

Initially, his plan to promote so called low-impact agriculture on public land had critics like Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen scratching their heads.

“Staff presented it to me as being things like grazing and silviculture. Well, siliviculture is OK until you cut down all of the trees.

But what worried environmentalists most was Caldwell’s proposal to let large land owners swap a promise for state land.

The way it works is this. A large landowner living next to a state preserve could agree not to develop 100 acres of his land and get 100 acres of public land for free. The landowner would also have to promise not to develop the public land.

Caldwell calls it a win-win for the environment.

“The state could give you in exchange, our state lands with a similar conservation easement and so, in the before, say we would have 100 acres conserved, in the after, we would have 200 acres conserved.”

And there are other benefits, Caldwell says.

“But it wouldn’t be managed by the state it would be managed by the private entity and it would be back on the tax roll in that community.”

Caldwell and his supporters may think it’s time for bold ideas, but they also know when the pull back. Caldwell was more into consensus building Tuesday, tweaking his bill to satisfy environmentalists.

What’s low-impact agriculture? Caldwell agreed it would only be what the conservation restrictions allow.

“This particular amendment came from the Nature Conservancy of Southwest Florida that was asking that the use be consistent with the land management plan, and that was the amendment.”

Caldwell’s caving on three critical words convinced environmentalists he was serious about their concerns. He agreed not to change a law that says conservation land deals have to result in a “net positive conservation benefit.”

“Nature Conservancy raised some concerns and then further Sierra Club, Audubon and the Legacy Group. All were concerned that changing out of net positive was not a positive move.”

Caldwell’s bill originally let landowners run straight to the governor and Cabinet to approve a land swap. Now his bill makes the proposals to get ranked by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, like everybody else. That was crucial, says Nature Conservancy lobbyist, Janet Bowman.

“That provides a lot of accountability. We have a lot of confidence in the ARC process. It has served the state well.”

Winning over environmentalists is one thing. The other chamber is another. The Senate takes up its version of the state lands bill Wednesday, and it doesn’t deal with land swaps.