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Environmental Preservation Back On Tallahassee's Radar

Photo by Carlton Ward, Jr./Courtesy Florida Wildlife Corridor

After being starved of money for years, several proposals are gaining ground in Tallahassee that could set aside money to buy and preserve what's left of Florida's natural lands. 

And some environmentalists say the reason isn’t because of a sudden concern for the environment - but because it's an election year.

Four years ago, 75 percent of Florida voters passed a Constitutional Amendment that mandated one-third of the proceeds from a state real-estate tax go for land and water projects. It would have provided around $800 million dollars a year.

But Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature haven’t to set aside any money for the main land-buying program known as Florida Forever.

"I almost don't have words to express the deep levels of disappointment that I've had over the past three years," said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. The non-partisan group aims to get conservation-minded people elected.

But now, State Sen. Rob Bradley, (R-Fleming Island), has asked for $100 million to be set aside for Florida Forever.  

And Gov. Scott’s budget is asking for $355 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for Florida Forever, nearly $40 million more for state parks, a $36 million uptick in beach restoration programs to $100 million, and $55 million for springs restoration.

The request comes as Scott considers a run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.  Moncrief said it doesn't take a skeptic to think a little election-year strategizing might be going on.

"I don't think it's cynics who say that - I think it's realists," she said. "I think anyone who's been paying attention to the governor's track record on the environment in his last two terms would not call him an environmental champion."

Moncrief said she believes the requests come because many politicians know that voters care about the environment. And this is in a state that has become the nation's third-most populous - and hosts nearly 100 million visitors a year.

She points to Scott being lauded for recent appointments, such as Eric Draper, the longtime director of Audubon Florida, to head the state park system.

"There's really no other explanation other than he does have eyes on becoming a U.S. Senator to represent Florida," Moncrief said. "And so not only in terms of the budget, he's doing a number of 11th-hour things and policy changes - and staff changes - to make him look better."

Since becoming Florida’s governor seven years ago, Scott’s record on the environment has been controversial, on issues ranging from climate change to offshore oil drilling. Early in his tenure, he called for major budget cuts to the state’s five regional water management districts, and in non-election years he called for budget reductions in the Department of Environmental Protection.

During many of those years, the Florida Wildlife Corridorgroup has been pushing for the need to connect the state's natural lands before they get developed. But since the group took its first cross-state expedition in 2012, money to preserve corridors for bears, panthers and other critters has sank to practically nothing.

"Last year, we only had $10 million for conservation easements through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, so really anything is a step up," said Corridor executive director Lindsay Cross.

This spring, a trio of environmentalists with the group will try to re-spark the interest from two previous 1,000-mile hike, bike and kayak treks. The "mini-trek" they plan is to call attention to protecting the narrow green space between the burgeoning sprawl of Tampa and Polk County on one side; and Orlando on the other.

Cross says there may be another reason for Scott's environmental about-face.

"I think part of it is a recognition that our parks and our wild systems are important to the state of Florida and its citizens, and there is a component of it that is good for business," she said.

That includes everything from nature tourism and fishing to buffers for the state's many military bases.

And Cross says the governor may have more personal reasons, as well.

"I do know that he enjoys using the resources - he's talked about taking his grandsons out and wanting them to go fishing and go hiking with him, and I can only hope that him going out and seeing some of these places has inspired that renewed interest," she said.

If that’s the case, Cross said she's willing to take the governor on a field trip or two to show him some of her favorite places.

Credit Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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