A busy and somewhat unusual Florida Legislative Session concluded in May. Audubon’s policy team pounded the pavement in Tallahassee to push good bills forward, to stop bad bills in their tracks, and to encourage full funding of environmental programs, conservation, and restoration.
Reducing local government home rule proved to be a theme of this session. As a conservation organization, we care that cities and counties have the power to protect and preserve special places within their borders. In Florida, we have a long history of state laws being the floor of such protections, but cities and counties need the additional ability to be more protective than the state. Only they can make decisions that take into account special features or conditions within their communities to contend with issues that may not appear in other counties across our large state.
House and Senate leaders voted on the state’s spending plan for fiscal year 2023-2024, totaling $116.5 billion, the largest in state history.
Highlights include more than $1.6 billion for water and Everglades restoration as well as over $1 billion for land acquisition programs.
Of note, in addition to $100 million for the Florida Forever program, an $850 million appropriation appeared in the budget late in the session. These funds are earmarked for habitat conservation in Northeast Florida (the “Ocala to Osceola Corridor” or “O2O”) and Southwest Florida (the “Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Basin”).
The O2O acquisitions are already identified through the Florida Forever program as a priority for purchase for conservation and include parcels in Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Hamilton, Lake, Marion, Putnam, Union, and Volusia counties.
The Caloosahatchee-Big Cypress Land Acquisition project in Hendry and Collier counties will protect and preserve approximately 72,000 acres of conservation and agriculture land and includes an option for easement sellers to lease back acreage for a limited time. Lease terms that are favorable for conservation will be key and remain to be negotiated between sellers and the state. Both of these projects would provide critical linkages for wildlife, recreational opportunities for people, and benefits for water quality and carbon sequestration.
This is the largest appropriation for land conservation in Florida history and presents a remarkable opportunity for progress in these two regions of the state. While these acquisitions may be outside the Florida Forever program, it will be important that the transparency and accountability Floridians have come to expect from conservation land buying are applied to these projects, as well.
This article appeared in the Summer 2023 Naturalist. Read the full magazine here.