More than two decades after Florida identified the need to save disappearing forests south of Miami, shrinking hammocks in the Keys and other sensitive land around the state, environmentalists fed up with politics getting in the way of conservation are taking their fight to the people.
In November, they will ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment — Amendment 1 on the ballot — that sets aside a third of taxes collected on real estate transactions over the next 20 years to conserve land and protect water.
The effort could potentially raise $10 billion and has already won support from a cross section of Florida interests: animals rights groups, local garden clubs, kayakers, bikers and even surfers. More than 700,000 signatures were collected to place the amendment on the ballot. To pass, 60 percent of voters must approve the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment.
Backers — citing drastic cuts to state spending on environmental land, as much as 95 percent by their estimate since 2009 — say the amendment simply restores money already promised by state lawmakers.
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“All we’re saying in Amendment 1 is we want to restore that funding and not have it subject to the political whims here in Tallahassee,” said Will Abberger, the campaign manager for the drive and director of conservation finance at The Trust for Public Land.
But critics say marrying land acquisition to the constitution for two decades makes the state budget too inflexible.
“We absolutely want to protect land. The question, though, is can we do it without embedding it in our constitution,” said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “What happens if we have another recession?”
The Florida Council of 100, a group of influential business leaders and academics, warned that the effort could trigger even more amendments driven by special interests.
“We should only amend our constitution sparingly and thoughtfully and not use it to accomplish what can be addressed legislatively,” chairman Steve Halverson said in a statement.
The amendment is modeled on the state’s practice of using taxes on real estate deals, or documentary stamp taxes, to pay for conservation, Abberger said. The tradition dates back to the 1960s and continued through the 1990s, when former Gov. Bob Martinez, on the heels of a population boom, found the state in danger of losing three million acres of critical forests and wetlands by 2020. Martinez’s Preservation 2000 plan eventually put 900,000 acres under state control.
In 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Forever Act to continue buying land critical to water supplies and habitat for some of the state’s 548 endangered and threatened species.
The act was supposed to provide $300 million a year, on top of $100 million supplied annually from other trusts. Land was plucked from a list tailored by scientists who determined whether the land helped protect water supplies and endangered species, had cultural value or met other criteria.
In South Florida, where Everglades restoration tends to draw the spotlight, the list includes the Dade County Archipelago, a string of fragmented hardwood and pineland hammocks mapped out by the county in 1995. The pineland, unique in the U.S., is critical to the survival of at least 51 rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Another project: about 7,300 acres that make up the last remaining hardwood hammocks in the Florida Keys that provide habitat to migrating birds, fish and coral reefs.
But when the economy tanked in 2008, legislators and Gov. Rick Scott began “sweeping” the trust funds and diverting money to other causes, said Eric Draper, Audubon Florida’s executive director.
“It kind of takes the word trust out of trust fund,” Draper said.
In his four years in office, Scott has spent just under $29 million on Florida Forever projects although this month the Cabinet approved about $4.4 million for land in Monroe and Washington counties. On the campaign trail this year, Scott has not said whether he supports the amendment, but instead unveiled his own environmental initiative — Let’s Keep Florida Beautiful — in which he vows to spend $1 billion over 10 years if he’s re-elected for a second term.
“The governor believes the ballot initiative process is an important part of our democracy, and it’s up to voters to decide on this measure,” campaign spokesman Greg Blair said in a statement.
Blair also said Scott’s overall spending on the environment has exceeded the $650 million a year Amendment 1 would raise.
His Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, has said he supports Amendment 1.
Without constitutional heft, Amendment 1 backers worry money for conservation lands is too easily diverted.
“We’ve seen less lands owned by the state of Florida in recent history compared to the amount of land they were acquiring probably five years ago and before,” said Greg Knecht, the Nature Conservancy’s director of protection in Florida.
The state now manages about 4.8 million acres for conservation. The federal government manages another 4 million while local governments control about 485,000 acres.
Opponents of the amendment argue putting more land under state conservancy maxes out already overburdened state resources.
“You need to have a good political debate about how many more acres do we need,” said Hart, with the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “What remains out there that is significant and should be set aside?”
And that’s a good question to ask, Knecht said.
“At one time the Nature Conservancy thought about 33 percent of the land should be permanently protected through conservation,” he said. “The exact number, nobody really knows.”
The amendment — in addition to providing money for management — includes an important tool: easements. Used widely in the west, easements allow the state to buy development rights to keep the land from being built on while keeping it on the tax roll and managed by owners. The strategy is typically used with ranch land and timberland.
The state currently has just over 600,000 acres in easements.
“We still think there are critical areas that should be acquired,” Knecht said. “But given the expense and amount of lands that need to be protected for critical corridors, we need to think broadly about all the tools in the toolbox.”
Conserving with easements would draw support from business, Hart said.
“The private sector is often the best caretaker of the land,” he said. “But you don’t need a constitutional amendment to do that.”
If the amendment passes, backers hope legislators will draft rules that follow the Florida Forever blueprint, which is governed by a 10-member panel that decides land purchases. Four positions are appointed by the governor and six from various state agencies. Unlike Florida Forever, Amendment 1 expands the list of land to include areas deemed critical by local agencies, including Miami-Dade County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program, water management districts and beach management programs. It could also help buy land for Everglades restoration.
“There’s a lot of land, and a lot of good conservation projects out there waiting,” Draper said. “The sad thing is the land was very cheap during the recession. The government could have bought it for much less than it would cost now.”