This week, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources and Senate Agriculture, Environment, and General Government Appropriations committees presented their initial FY22/23 budgets for environmental and conservation items. The House recommends $100 million for Florida Forever, a land-conservation program under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), with the Senate recommending $90 million. These amounts are consistent with recent funding levels of $100 million but still only one-third of what was historically dedicated ($300 million) to our award-winning water and land conservation programs.
In a bold move, Senate Committee Chair Ben Albritton proposed an additional $300 million for conservation easements and protection of wildlife corridors through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP). This program, housed under the Department of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), provides partial payments to landowners to protect working landscapes, like cattle ranches. These landscapes can help connect and maintain corridors for wildlife and provide other ecosystem benefits, like water storage in wetlands. Last year, the legislature allocated $300 million of federal money to protecting wildlife corridors from the Federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds.
This week, the FDEP also announced the protection of more than 14,347 acres of natural areas within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The projects include the acquisition of the 4,385-acre Corrigan Ranch within the Everglades National Wildlife Refuge and the acquisition of the 1,622-acre Devil’s Garden property north of the Caloosahatchee River. FDEP also purchased a 1,670-acre conservation easement on Hardee Flatwoods near the Peace River and a 6,670-acre easement on Wedgworth Farms in the Kissimmee/St. Johns River Connector project.
FCV celebrates these recent conservation purchases, and they underscore the need for consistent and meaningful funding. FCV continues to advocate for $300 million or more to be dedicated annually from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the suite of water and land conservation programs, including the Florida Forever Priority List, Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and the Florida Communities Trust (FCT).
Last year, the legislature failed to fund FCT, a popular matching-grant program that non-profit land trusts, cities, and counties can tap into to create parks and preserves close to where people live. FCT helps ensure equitable access to nature for all Floridians. It is unclear whether the Florida Forever budget will include FCT allocation this year.
75% of Floridians voted for the Water and Land Conservation Amendment in 2014 to provide consistent funding for the suite of our conservation programs. However, the legislature has never fully funded our most essential conservation programs, nor have they followed the statutorily-required funding formula. Reliable and meaningful funding will help agencies like FDEP and FDACS better plan for strategic conservation purchases, optimize our tax dollars, and, ultimately, protect more of Florida’s incredible water and land for wildlife and current and future generations of Floridians.