We are lucky to live in a state with such amazing natural splendor – towering pines, crystal springs, expansive wetlands, mossy oak hammocks, and sprawling coastlines. These natural areas provide us with countless ecosystem services that our communities rely on. Our state has had a long and odious past with altering our natural landscape for development. Interventions from passionate conservationists have helped keep our state wild, but the threat is never out of sight.
Ecologists worldwide are advocating for a plan to protect 30% of our land and oceans by 2030. It’s called the 30×30 Campaign. Worldwide efforts are on track to protect 17% of the land and 10% of the ocean by the end of 2020. In Florida, we’re well on our way to meeting this conservation goal, thanks to a long history of programs like Florida Forever. But as a country, we can do more to protect our natural resources. And we must do more if we hope to have clean water, clean air, and places to recreate in the future.
Our Natural Lands Are Under Threat
Florida’s natural landscape faces threats from all directions. We build roads, strip malls, and subdivisions that fragment habitat, forever altering the ecological benefit that these ecosystems provide. As our population continues to grow we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, but instead we must make wise growth management decisions that prioritize public lands, water, wildlife, and ultimately, our quality of life. In Florida we are on the front lines of climate change. Our protected lands aid in the battle against impacts like sea level rise. Inland and coastal lands store carbon, and act as buffers against storm surge and intensified hurricanes. Our conservation lands are an investment in the future of Florida. They must be protected.
The Current Protection Status of Our Lands
No two public lands are the same. Our preserves, parks, rural landscapes, and recreational areas all fulfill different conservation roles and, therefore, have different standards for protection. Florida’s conservation lands are classified by their protection status and the type of management that occurs. Areas that are permanently protected with adopted management plans comprise 22% of Florida’s existing conservation lands. The majority (about 62%) of Florida’s 10.6 million acres of conserved lands are at a lower level of protection. We can enhance the protection of existing conservation areas by elevating lower levels to mid or higher protection levels. That may mean improving how we manage the land and water, from a focus on extractive uses like timber or oil and gas drilling, to one dedicated to plant and animal biodiversity. We must not only advocate for an increase of conservation lands but also improve management practices on the lands that have already been conserved.
Advancing Protection for our Oceans and Coastal Areas
In Florida, we excel at protecting land, freshwater, and nearshore coastal areas. Protection of our vast and interconnected oceans often requires coordination at the federal and international level. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is our state’s only designated marine sanctuary. It protects vital habitats like corals, mangroves, and seagrasses, encompassing 2.4 million acres. It includes five marine zones with varying protection and management levels, some that exclude fishing or motorized boats. Other parts of Florida’s coasts have protection or management plans, as well. 419,000 acres are part of the National Estuarine Research Reserves system and 2.2 million acres are within state aquatic preserves. The state, in coordination with local and federal partners, should identify and seek protection for additional sensitive coastal and ocean areas.
Looking to 2030
Achieving the 30×30 goal in Florida will require continued strategic acquisition of lands and waters that support biological diversity and our human population. That means consistent and full funding for programs like Florida Forever. It will also require enhancing the level of protection on existing conservation areas and improving management strategies. State leaders should work collaboratively with national partners to protect valuable marine areas, as well as expanding aquatic preserves in appropriate counties.
We have a rich conservation legacy in Florida. We can become a global leader in the 30×30 Campaign and enact changes that will benefit Floridians for generations to come.