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DeSantis Draws Praise From Environmentalists Over Florida Forever Land Conservation Deals

Sun setting over a wetland area.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Cabinet members drew praise from environmentalists after agreeing to spend $79 million on seven Florida Forever land deals.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Cabinet members drew praise from environmentalists Thursday after agreeing to spend $79 million on seven Florida Forever land deals.

The deals include protecting thousands of acres in Franklin and Wakulla counties that include frontage on the Gulf of Mexico and conserving a chunk of property in Hendry County that is an area for Florida panthers.

The decisions by DeSantis and the Cabinet to approve the deals came amid growing expectations about state budget cuts next fiscal year because of the economic hit from the coronavirus. Environmental groups issued statements Thursday saying the protection of conservation lands strengthens Florida’s “environment-dependent” economy.

“From tourism to real estate, agriculture to defense, our state’s economy hinges on healthy wetlands, protected open space, and clean water,” Audubon Florida said in a news release. “All seven of these proposals are remarkable acquisitions for the communities and the economies they support.”

Lindsay Cross, government relations director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said the approval of the deals will protect drinking water, wildlife habitat, agricultural land and property that will buffer the impacts of climate change.

“Parks and natural areas are vital to the health, enjoyment and economic prosperity of our state,” Cross said.

The proposed $93.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $100 million for Florida Forever. Lawmakers approved the spending plan in March but have not formally sent it to DeSantis, who is expected to use his line-item veto power to trim the budget.

Florida Forever received $33 million in the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The conservation program in the past was budgeted at as much as $300 million annually.

Most of the deals were approved Thursday without comment from DeSantis or members of the Cabinet --- Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

The largest of the properties, 17,080 acres in Franklin and Wakulla counties that include two miles of frontage on the Gulf of Mexico, is a $43 million purchase from The Nature Conservancy. A Cabinet document said The Nature Conservancy negotiated an option agreement to buy the property from Ochlockonee Timberlands, LLC and offered to the state the right to purchase an assignment of the option agreement.

The state expects to get some of the money back, as the deal includes a restrictive easement that will draw $3 million from the U.S. Air Force, while The Nature Conservancy is expected to kick in $2.25 million, said state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein.

Fried said the deal will benefit wildlife and is important to the state's aquaculture industry.

“Especially for our Gulf seafood industry, which is still recovering from Hurricane Michael,” Fried said. “Protecting these estuaries, bays and watershed will really help our shellfish and seafood industries for generations to come.”

The land shares a border with the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and connects to Tate’s Hell State Forest, Bald Point State Park and Alligator Harbor Aquatic Preserve.

At $28.5 million, the second largest parcel being purchased Thursday was 10,684 acres owned by Alico Inc. in Hendry County. The land, which shares its western and southwestern boundary with the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, is considered a primary and secondary zone for the federally endangered Florida panther.

The Cabinet also agreed to buy: 578.4 acres in Gulf County for $720,000; acquire 4.5 acres --- the last remaining privately owned land within Topsail Hill Preserve State Park --- in Walton County for $882,500; acquire 9.9 acres in Marion County for $800,000; purchase a 2,883-acre conservation easement in DeSoto County for $4.166 million; and purchase a 713-acre conservation easement in Polk County for $1.125 million.

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