A bill introduced by a Clay County Republican has Florida conservationists optimistic that the state Legislature will make a commitment toward preserving sensitive land years after voters approved Amendment 1.
Sen. Rob Bradley sponsored Senate Bill 370 this year. The bill, among other things, would guarantee $100 million each year to the Florida Forever Trust Fund for land conservation.
The bill passed through the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee by a 10-0 vote on Monday. Now it heads to the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources as well as the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Bradley was assigned as chairman of that Senate Appropriations Committee.
Some proponents of the bill say they’re glad to support it but would like to see the funding increase.
“I’m highly supportive of the bill,” local attorney Jane West said. “It’s about time (the Legislature) finally starts to fulfill the voters’ intent.”
Voters approved a referendum in 2014 that was supposed to dedicate at least $18 billion over 20 years to Florida Forever through a dedication of the documentary stamp tax, according to The Trust for Public Land.
There hasn’t been much dedicated to Florida Forever, though. A program that used to see $300 million annually saw just $15 million a year ago and nothing in the current year.
But there seems to be a growing sentiment in state government to do a better job protecting Florida’s natural environment, which acts as a draw for tourists and residents and also helps mitigate flooding when properly managed.
Ryan Smart, president of environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida, said Florida Forever is gaining some popularity with lawmakers who see the fiscal advantages of preserving sensitive land.
“You look at the Everglades (for example), it’s very expensive to fix something once you’ve done the damage,” Smart said. “So as an investment, to be able to get out in front of that and prevent damage in the first place is not only good for the environment but is really the conservative thing to do from a tax and economic standpoint.”
With the Republicans in control of both chambers of the Legislature, it’s imperative that there is support based on conservative ideals.
Smart called Bradley the perfect person to lead the Forever Florida crusade after his work in getting money to help restore the Everglades in the last fiscal year.
“Sen. Bradley has really emerged as a leader for Florida’s environment and essentially representing the interests of the entire state of Florida when it comes to environmental issues,” Smart said.
For his part, Bradley said in a release last month when the bill was introduced that it was the Legislature’s duty to fulfill the promise to voters who asked for conservation funding in 2014.
“Floridians are blessed with some of the most unique ecosystems in the world, from springs to the Everglades to coral reefs to world class beaches and rivers,” Bradley said in a release. “As our population continues to explode, we have an obligation to preserve these unique ecosystems for our children and grandchildren. The Florida Forever program helps us fulfill this obligation.”
The release also noted that since its inception in 2001, the state has purchased more than 718,126 acres of land with about $2.9 billion. Land purchased through Florida Forever is held in trust for the citizens of Florida and is used for parks, trails, wildlife management areas, flood control and more.
While calling SB 370 only a positive first step, those in the conservation community are happy to see the direction and encouraged by the fact that a Republican senator is taking the lead since that is the party of power right now, North Florida Land Trust executive director Jim McCarthy said.
“It’s really huge for us in the environmental community to have someone like Sen. Bradley to take the lead,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy added that his organization could use some of the Florida Forever money to preserve land around waterways like Durbin, Julington and Six Mile creeks as well as the St. Johns River — among other lands.
“There could be a significant (local) benefit, and frankly it’s about time,” McCarthy said. “It’s important on a number of different fronts.”