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House Turns To Amendment 1 Lands Debate

Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, begins debate over land policy.
Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, begins debate over land policy.

With the ink barely dry on its water policy legislation, the Florida House is already mapping out a new plan for land conservation. Republican leaders began focusing Friday on Amendment 1 and how it fits in to managing millions of wilderness acres.

Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, begins debate over land policy.
Credit Florida House of Representatives
Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, begins debate over land policy.

Environmentalists smelled victory as soon as Amendment 1 reached the November ballot. The same day 75 percent of voters approved it, visions of wildlife preserves, white beaches and sparking springs danced in their heads.

“I think it overwhelmingly demonstrated their support for increased funding – increased state funding – for water and land conservation and we’re hoping to carry that message into the state Legislature.”

Now that Amendment 1’s funneling $750 million into the environment, Republican House leaders are beginning to focus their gaze on the state’s 12 million acres of public wilderness.

“What does that look like when you put it all together and what is the most critical need for us to focus that money?”

That’s House State Affairs Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell. The Republican from North Fort Myers was describing his committee’s informational hearing on state land policy. Committee members listened to state lands director Kelley Boree give a few examples of the Department of Environmental Protection’s land preservation efforts in the past year.

“We’ve protected Bronson Springs in Washington County, we’ve acquired more than 900 acres in the Florida Keys ecosystem project..”

Boree’s dry recitation is a perfect example of what most voters pictured when they filled in the little circle for Amendment 1 – setting aside land to keep a step ahead of the bulldozer and the next strip mall.

But to some conservative Republicans, Amendment 1 opens the door to an old debate. Why take more property off the tax rolls? Why not manage the land we already have? In fact, Representative Ray Pilon, a Republican from Sarasota, thinks regulators should rethink the land they’ve already bought.

“We want to make sure that the land that we have is managed properly and that any land that’s in current ownership might be surplussed, to continue on that because sometimes it’s not environmentally valuable.”

And as the land debate heats up, some of the dispute is spilling over into the group that wrote Amendment 1. Ken Bryan, director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, thinks 10 percent of Amendment 1 money should go to completing a bike and nature trail from Pensacola to Key West.

 “And we’re still having difficult conversations with our sister organizations about how do we get the resources that we need to the trail so that we can make this happen.”

The House passed its massive rewrite of state water policy in the first three days of session. Crafting a state land policy could take weeks.

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Jim Ash is a reporter at WFSU-FM. A Miami native, he is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.
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