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Florida lawmakers propose about $1 billion in land conservation for the next fiscal year

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Service
The Florida Legislature has proposed about $1 billion in land conservation funds for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2023.

Florida Forever would receive $100 million, another $100 million is earmarked for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and $800 million would fund projects connecting the Ocala and Osceola National Forests.

The Florida Legislature has proposed about $1 billion in land conservation funds for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2023.

Legislators directed about $100 million to Florida Forever, the state's land acquisition program.

Dean Saunders is a real estate broker in Lakeland with SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler. He’s also a former state legislator representing Polk County from 1992 through 1996 who helped pioneer Florida Forever when it was known back then as Preservation 2000.

“Back when I had the idea to create conservation easements, even before I was in the legislature, I was looking around at a bunch of dead orange trees in Clermont, which is where I grew up," Saunders said. "And, I remember saying to my wife at the time, ‘this will all be houses one day … And so, I wonder if there's some way we could maybe pay them not to develop it.’ ”

Man with a dark blue blazer and light blue collared shirt with white hair smiling directly into the camera. The background is blurred green vegetation.
Dean Saunders
Dean Saunders is a real estate agent and former Florida representative who pioneered Florida's conservation easement program.

"I'm an eighth-generation Floridian … I watched our state population, probably triple in my lifetime … I'm a strong private property rights guy. I believe, that's foundational to our government … so I'm not offended by development, but I'm passionate about keeping some of it from being developed."

Another $100 million is earmarked to purchase conservation easements on agricultural lands through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

Saunders has brokered many deals for Florida property owners through this program.

Essentially, agricultural landowners voluntarily and legally agree to permanently limit the use of their properties in order to protect their conservation values, and the state financially compensates them for it. Saunders said his clients agree to it because they want to pass their land on to future generations.

“They want to protect something of Florida,” Saunders said. “They protected it all these generations. They haven't developed it.”

And a hefty $800 million would go toward the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor, known as O2O.

Saunders said he’s grateful for the anticipated funding, but he'd rather not have the geographic restrictions of O2O.

"It's over a billion dollars, that they chose to invest in our green infrastructure — that is phenomenal. It's just that $800 million of it is restricted to two geographic areas. And they may or may not be able to structure deals there. And there are hundreds of thousands of acres on the list already in the Division of State Lands that could be perhaps protected,” Saunders said.

Just last week, the Florida Cabinet and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved protecting nearly 40,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands, of which Saunders brokered about half, using $100 million left over from the current fiscal year. The Cabinet needs to approve deals over $5 million.

As for the proposed $1 billion for next fiscal year, the governor has not yet signed off on the budget.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.