Public Private Land Swap Survives First Vote

Apr 15, 2015

Environmentalists began the session wondering why the Department of Agriculture was playing such a key role in major rewrites of state land and water policy. With just three weeks to go, ag creep is picking up speed.

St. George Island State Park would be included in a survey of state land uses that could include "low-impact" agriculture under a Senate proposal.
Credit State of Florida

The House tentatively approved a plan Wednesday that would give private landowners state land in exchange for a promise to conserve it – and an equal amount of private land.

But when Republican sponsor Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers brought it up for an initial vote, Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach was ready with questions.

“The first is, what is the average price that the state has paid for the conservation lands?”

Caldwell was caught off guard and couldn’t answer.

“Thank you Mr. Speaker, thank you Representative Caldwell. I don’t have that figure off of the top of my head.”

Pafford had another.

“In terms of the average price per acre that the state has paid for conservation easements, do you have any number there?”

The bill allows farmers and ranchers to use state land for “low-impact” agriculture, and that wasn’t defined. When environmentalists balked, Caldwell put in a major protection.

The Nature Conservancy’s Janet Bowman was won over.

“Sort of the bottom line, it has to be consistent with the conservation purposes that are identified for the land and that’s a huge improvement.”

Each land swap would be a bargain, Caldwell says. The amount of conservation land doubles and there’s more acres on the tax rolls for local governments. And it’s a cheaper for farmers and growers, Bowman points out.

“But another alternative to this sort of arrangement is leasing, just a straight lease of state land for grazing and that’s certainly done under existing statute.”

The greens won a holding action in the House, but they’re being outflanked in the Senate.  Its bill doesn’t have a land swap. But Republican Alan Hays of Umatilla wants Florida’s 670,000 acres of state parks to be potentially open to low-impact agriculture.

“We currently allow low-impact agricultural activities and this will restore activities that are there. Very good land managent.”

Some park land already has low-impact agriculture, but Hays is going too far, says Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper.

“We really don’t need this evaluation for the entire park system, most parks are beach parks, all these places, McClay State Park, all these are are not going to be appropriate.”

The House could pass Caldwell’s bill as early as Thursday. The Senate version is ready for the floor.