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Will Abberger
Conservation Amendment Would Benefit Florida's Future

With an eye toward conserving Florida’s rich natural beauty for future generations, our state has had a long-standing commitment to protecting public land and water through acquisition and management. 

Since 1990, Preservation 2000 and its successor, Florida Forever, have provided $300 million per year to acquire conservation and recreation lands.  These programs, started during the administration of Governor Bob Martinez in 1990 and continued under Governor Jeb Bush’s leadership in 2000, were funded by issuing bonds backed by a small fee on real estate and other transactions.  

Starting in 2009, no new state funding has been provided for our continuing needs for the clean water, protected natural areas, and parks that make many of our cities livable.  In contrast to $300 million per year, since 2009 a total of only $23 million in new funding has been allocated to Florida Forever.  This represents a 97.5 percent cut for water and land conservation under both Republican and Democratic leadership, for 19 years. 

Florida citizens, local governments, businesses, conservation organizations and others have asked the Legislature to restore funding to these vital programs, but it has declined.  Meanwhile, over the course of the past 20 years, Florida voters have approved 82 city and county ballot measures, including votes in almost every major urban county, to dedicate local funds for conservation and recreation land acquisition. 
Florida’s citizens vote for conservation because they understand that without clean and abundant water, pristine beaches, flowing springs and natural areas, our state cannot attract tourists, sustain population growth and attract high-wage businesses whose employees demand a high quality of life.  The only way to assure that state funding is available to protect and restore the water and land is to dedicate funds constitutionally, and that is what the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment does.

Florida has developed one of the most transparent and objective programs for selecting which lands to purchase based on their ability to meet our water, wildlife habitat preservation and community park needs. The lands also contribute to the important restoration of degraded natural systems.  Guided by science and oversight by citizen advisors, the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council has developed a plan identifying an additional 2 million acres of critically important land that must be protected. 

Currently, 28 percent of our state is in public ownership, about 10 percent \ state-owned. The federal government holds 8 percent, and water management districts and local government holdings comprise most of the balance. Land targeted under the Water and Land Conservation Amendment is less than one percent of the more-than 25 million acres of Florida currently in private ownership.

The reason our state parks have won national recognition is that policy-makers have had the foresight to set aside these jewels and provide for adequate management.  The Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment will assure that we can do the same in the future.

Under Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, it made sense to issue bonds to generate funding to protect natural Florida.  Documentary stamp revenues have been the historic funding source for water and land conservation in Florida and are currently being used to pay off previously issued bonds.  The proposed Amendment posits a new “pay as you go” approach that will enable preservation of irreplaceable natural areas that should not be lost to development and also provide for restoration -- including of the Everglades -- and stewardship of existing conservation and recreation lands.

The amendment intentionally provides for the continued repayment of bonds as valid use of the funds.  Constitutional dedication of funds for debt service ensures the state’s high debt rating is preserved and in fact may give investors even greater confidence, knowing the legislature cannot divert these funds for other purposes.

Currently, more than the amendment’s proposed 33 percent of revenues from the documentary stamp are allocated to land conservation, all to serve the debt on existing bonds.  As the old bonds are paid off, the amount of documentary stamp revenues committed to this purpose will decrease.  However, new funding for conservation of Florida natural heritage, drinking water recharge areas and lands to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation has been slashed to nearly zero.  One-third of the existing documentary stamp revenues is a reasonable amount to protect and restore national treasures like the Everglades, ensure that we have a clean water supply and preserve natural Florida. 

Unlike funding for transportation, water and land conservation does not receive tens of millions from the federal government.  In fact, Congress has drastically reduced funding to protect national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.  State funding for transportation also receives significant funding from the gasoline tax.
As our economy recovers, demand for growth, water and roads will continue to strain natural resources.  Lands that recharge our drinking water, filtering out contaminants, and provide wildlife habitat, will be developed. Owners will have no other reasonable options. With a Constitutional mandate, funding for conservation will remain connected to our state’s economic realities.  As our economy improves, we can ensure that we protect Florida’s critical lands and waters.

Fundamentally, we must ask: Is protecting water and natural areas in Florida, matching grants for parks in cities and towns, saving areas for hunting, fishing and boating enough to dedicate less than one percent of our current state budget for these purposes?  If the answer is yes, then join 3,000 volunteers, 550 donors and more than 250 endorsing organizations in supporting Florida’s Water and Land Legacy. Visit www.floridawaterlandlegacy.org.

Will Abberger is Chair of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Campaign and Director of Conservation Finance for The Trust for Public Land.  Contact him at [email protected].

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Published Monday, April 29, 2013