The largest parcel consists of 2,600 acres in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County. It lies in the Green Swamp, the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hillsborough and Withlacoochee, and was purchased to protect an aquifer. State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Assistant Executive Director Eric Sutton said that it might not stay on the list.
However, Paul Cozzey, of the Pinellas County parks department, said the 4-acre Pinellas Trail parcel was purchased to provide access to a big-box store that was never built. Because the parcel has never been connected to the rest of the trail, it could be sold with no complaints.
Florida once set the national standard for acquiring conservation land. Twenty years ago, property-rights advocates contended that regulations and lawsuits were not the right way to save environmentally sensitive land. Instead, they said, the state should buy the land.
The Legislature created programs with names like Florida Forever and invested $300 million a year in them. Florida assembled some 3 million acres of swamps, forests, and beaches; an effort that won national awards and attracted millions of tourists.
But during the state’s economic meltdown, funding for Florida Forever dried up. Some in the Legislature complained that the state had taken too much land off the tax rolls. Local, state, and federal agencies own more than 25 percent of Florida’s 34.2 million acres — although that includes not only parks but also prisons, military bases, college campuses, and other facilities.
This year, according to Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, environmental advocates tried to persuade Scott administration officials to budget $100 million to revive Florida Forever. Instead, Scott’s DEP proposed — and the Legislature approved — $20 million in cash, and up to $50 million funded by the sale of other state-owned lands. And the rules say that any new land that’s bought should be for springs protection, water quality, or buffering a military base — not saving habitat for panthers or other endangered species.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are pushing a constitutional amendment for a vote in 2014 that would require the state to set aside $100 million a year for buying environmentally sensitive land — without selling off any in return.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com