A pair of land purchases approved Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet were hailed by conservationists as a sign that a pulse is returning to the Florida Forever conservation program.
The Cabinet unanimously agreed to spend $3.15 million to acquire 669 acres in Charlotte County to help restore the flow of fresh water to the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, and $9.77 million for 619 acres in Collier County that will provide additional buffering for the 13,000-acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Bird Rookery Swamp.
Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said the deals are a sign that "the state of Florida is back in the business of conservation."
"We depend in Southwest Florida on a healthy environment," Draper said. "That's part of our economy down there."
Starting in 1991, lawmakers had consistently provided $300 million annually for the Florida Forever and Preservation 2000 land-buying programs. But in recent years, funding has dried up as the state faced a series of tight budgets and Republican leaders expressed increasing concern over costs of managing the state's growing real estate holdings.
Funding for the purchases Tuesday were made by selling nonconservation parcels of land. The sales replaced a more controversial program that sought to raise the money by selling parcels the state has previously acquired for preservation.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said funding for programs like Florida Forever should increase due to the 2014 voter-approved Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which devotes a portion of real-estate taxes to conservation efforts, and the recovering economy.
Putnam added that there should be a mix of outright purchases of land for conservation and the purchase of development rights, which allow farmers and ranchers to continue to use their land while the state is able to keep those parcels from being built up.
"I believe the purchase of development rights achieves the same environmental benefits at greater savings to the state," Putnam said.
Putnam has requested $25 million for the Rural and Family Protection Program, which is used for development right deals.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have started to break down how they will use money from the land and water conservation amendment, approved in November with 75 percent of the vote.
The amendment requires that for the next two decades, 33 percent of the revenue from a tax on real-estate transactions, known as documentary stamps, goes into conservation efforts, including Florida Forever.
Staff for the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee last week projected the amendment will generate $757 million for conservation efforts during the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Since the amendment was approved, lawmakers have differed on how to define land-preservation and water-conservation projects, how the state should determine which of its "impaired" water bodies is most critical and how to approach the reduction of stormwater runoff and agricultural fertilizer use.