Recorded at the 2023 Lay of the Land Conference, this episode covers Florida Forever, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and how the state of Florida funds these programs. Moderated by Senior Advisor Jeremiah Thompson, this panel features Callie DeHaven of the Division of State Lands, Crenel Francis of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Keith Rowell of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Dean Saunders of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
What makes a good candidate for conservation land? (Callie DeHaven) With our Florida Forever program, what we're doing is really looking at the natural resources, we're looking at things like connectivity to other public land, we're looking at the wildlife and water habitat that might be there. We're also looking at recharge, we're looking at wetlands, and we're looking at those ecosystem services that land provides. We're very attuned to military base buffering as well. It's interesting that the military and conservation would go hand-in-hand, but I think it's very important, in compatible use, that conservation lands play in military base buffering. I think the real impetus that we're looking at are landscape linkages, wildlife, and water conservation.
How does the USDA look at Florida conservation? (Crenel Francis). We have different components of the easement program in Florida and nationwide. One of them is called Agriculture Land Easements, and that is through the USDA Farm Bill ACEP program, which stands for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program. In this particular program, the purpose is to protect the long-term viability of the national food supply by preventing the conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses. This program helps us to focus on ag land staying in ag while protecting it from development.
What is the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program? (Keith Rowell) It was established in 2001. The focus of the program was to protect Florida's agricultural land base. We do protect the sensitive natural areas within them as part of that, but our number one priority is making sure that we have a local source of food and fiber. It protects ag practices and keeps them on the tax rolls. The only cost we have post-closing is a monitoring site visit every year to 18 months, so that's something good for the taxpayer. We do buy significant properties around military bases and are now adding to the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Since it started getting significant funding in 2008, we've spent about $119 million, and that protected about 68,000 acres of land. Partner funding was $31 million of that, and over the last few years, that's kept us alive. We've got a current project list. There are 126 projects left on it, about 296,000 acres scattered from over in the Panhandle down to around Lake Okeechobee and the South.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor. If you haven't heard of it, you've probably haven't gone down the road with a billboard or seen any social media because it's a big campaign that has brought a real focus to conservation in the state of Florida. 93 of our remaining projects are within the corridor and since the passage of the Florida wildlife corridor act, six projects have been acquired. What we've acquired since that was started, all those are within the corridor.
Why is the Florida Wildlife Corridor important? (Callie DeHaven) I think the wildlife corridor has provided a platform, enthusiasm, and recognition of the conservation programs that have gone before. It's reenergized people and it's reenergized legislature. They do see the importance of it, but we're not always very good about publicizing what we do and the need for it. I think that was maybe one of our issues, but the Wildlife Corridor has certainly brought focus. 97% of the projects that Florida Forever has pursued are within the wildlife corridor.
(Dean Saunders) The concept of linkages and linking our natural areas one to another and having a corridor is not a new concept. In fact, it's been around for 50 or 60 years. It goes back to the old adage: You ask a landowner if he wants to own everything and he'll say "No, I don't want to own everything, just everything that touches me." Well, the state's no different and it does leverage opportunities.
Every eight years, you've got a completely new legislature, so that makes our job of educating them more challenging. After the great recession, there wasn't much land acquisition at all so there's a whole class of legislators that were elected that really weren't aware. The branded Wildlife Corridor concept took an old concept, dusted it off, polished it up, and gave it a new face, but it really helped provide a focus on the need to do that. The concept makes sense. And we, the voters, already said it 30-something years ago: we want an investment in our green infrastructure.
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