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Controversial Budget Bill Could Dramatically Alter Everglades Restoration Policy and Conservation Programs

On Feb 17, the controversial SB 2508 passed the Senate floor with one amendment. If you’ve been keeping up with Everglades restoration recently, you may have seen social media posts about fishing captains arriving en masse to the Florida Capitol to speak against this bill. FCV also spoke against SB 2508 on Feb 9 at its only committee stop, the Senate Rules committee

The bill contains significant policy changes related to Everglades restoration, permitting for wetland destruction, and to one of our leading conservation programs.

As a member of the Everglades Coalition, FCV strongly supports comprehensive Everglades restoration. Unfortunately, language in the original bill would de-prioritize completion of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, an essential component of the holistic plan to send more water south to Florida Bay and reduce harmful discharges to coastal St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. 

A late-filed amendment, aimed at quelling the concerns of boat captains, anglers, and Everglades advocates, made some improvements to the bill, but still requires additional oversight of the South Florida Water Management District and seeks to bring other water uses, including agriculture, in line with ecological restoration. 

However, other significant conservation concerns remain. For one, the amended bill still allows for public entities, including utilities, to pay to have their wetland permits fast-tracked. This new policy means that those entities capable of paying consultants to review and process their permits can get a green light to fill and destroy wetlands faster. As a recap, the state assumed wetland permitting from the federal government in 2020 at the request of Governors Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. FCV and other conservation organizations opposed that move due to the benefits of having additional oversight of the program. Since then, FDEP has been backlogged by the influx of permit requests, and developers are looking for any way to get their permits approved.

As an ardent supporter and watchdog of our conservation funding programs, FCV was one of the few groups to speak publicly about the sweeping changes proposed for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFL), a conservation easement program under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Amongst the proposed changes, RFL would now be able to purchase land. Currently, RFL is a conservation easement program designed to keep landowners on the land. The benefits are that the land stays in private ownership and on the tax rolls. In exchange for limiting future development, landowners receive payment for the partial value of their land and they can continue to ranch, harvest timber, or perform other agricultural activities. Working landscapes are important connectors and provide habitat for wildlife. Allowing RFL to purchase land outright may compete with the existing Florida Forever program. The bill also removes the preference for ranch and timber as working landscapes which means that other crop commodities may receive equal consideration for protection. Cattle ranches and timber provide enormous benefits as corridors for wildlife. It would be hard to argue that a strawberry field has the same habitat or water quality benefits as a sprawling cattle ranch or well-maintained timber. 

Finally, the bill would allow landowners that have been paid a conservation easement from taxpayer dollars to develop a wetland or conservation mitigation bank simultaneously. While proponents will argue that this allows land to be improved and restored, FCV posits that these mechanisms should be implemented independently rather than layering multiple funding sources for landowners on the same property

FCV has shared these concerns with the bill sponsor, Sen. Ben Albritton (R- Wauchula), a citrus farmer from central Florida, but he has failed to address them through an amendment. The legislature will now consider the bill as part of the budget conference process – aka, the horse-trading that occurs behind closed doors. We stand firm in our belief that significant policy changes like this should occur during the normal committee process, which allows for more robust public input and debate amongst legislators. 

Floridians love our state conservation programs. If Tallahassee lawmakers seek to overhaul them, it deserves more than one committee hearing. 

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