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Florida Forever Or Florida Never More?

The Florida legislature directed funding toward water projects instead of land conservation this year. But environmental groups complain that the state has still not fully implemented the land conservation constitutional amendment passed in 2014.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire is working to get 40,000 acres along the river onto the Florida Forever priority project list. He said the proposed conservation easement will protect fish and wildlife in the flood plain.

“I think this is a very important and even critical acquisition for the continued protection of the Apalachicola," he said. "We have seen in other areas how development in the flood plain can harm the downstream resources.”

Credit USDA

But the project will have to wait until state lawmakers appropriate money to the fund. Legislators approved $1.2 billion for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, but decided not to fund land conservation. Legislators also approved $150 million dollars for the Everglades and $50 million for springs.

The reservoir was a high priority for Senate president Joe Negron. “Father” of Florida Forever and Budget Chairman Sen. Jack Latvala says he was okay with defunding land conservation to get Negron his reservoir. But he said he’ll put funding for land conservation in the budget next year.

“I don’t know this for a fact," he said. "I said the other day I don’t want to be politifacted on this, but I believe you’re going to probably find there’s more money in this budget for the environment than we’ve had in a long time.”

But Will Abberger with the Trust for Public Land has heard "wait until next year" from legislators before. He said the state diverts money from the trust fund for other purposes. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2015.

“And in any given year since the amendment was passed about a quarter to a third of the funding has been used for existing agency operations," he said. "For buying pick up trucks, funding salaries and buying computers and just the everyday things that the agencies have to do to operate. That was not what voters approved in 20-14.”

Florida Forever was created in 1999 to fund buying land. Voters overwhelmingly approved creating a land acquisition trust fund in 2014. The amendment dedicates a third of the revenue from the document stamps tax for land conservation, including wetlands, fish and wildlife habitats and protecting water resources and water quality.

Legislation funding Florida Forever passed the Florida House earlier this month, but died in the Senate. Rep. Ben Diamond said the proposal didn’t give enough to Florida Forever projects that have more merit.

“Yet despite that, the bill before us allocates more funds towards the rural and family lands projects and less toward Florida Forever,” he said.

Florida currently manages about 10 million acres of conservation land. Some lawmakers say capital projects like new reservoirs should also get trust fund money. And some also say the they want more land to be subject to property taxes.

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