Florida’s Acquisition and Restoration Council, the ARC, approved the state’s 2015 priority list last week, with more than a dozen of desired properties located in Alachua and Marion counties. The council held a public meeting on Dec. 18 to hear project proposals and ranked the sites in order of importance the next day.
The 119-item list contains over 2 million acres of properties sprinkled throughout the state, with more than half located in North Central Florida.
The list acts as a “wish list”, said Marianne Gengenbach, chief of office of environmental services within the division of state lands. They are the properties the Florida Forever program hopes to absorb in 2015 and receive state funding through Florida Legislature.
Florida Forever is a conservation and recreation acquisition program to ensure Florida’s lands are protected and kept pristine.
In addition to reviewing management plans for already-state-owned conversation lands, the ARC selected four new sites for state land acquisition this year, which is more than most years, Gengenbach said.
Four new projects were added this year: Myakka Island Conservation Corridor, bordering both Sarasota and Manatee counties, Upper Lake Lafayette Aquifer Protection in Leon County, Arbuckle Creek Watershed in Highlands County and Costal Headwaters Longleaf Forest in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Each site is assigned to one of six categories where it is ranked from highest to lowest priority every year. Some projects’ rankings will move, while many stay the same.
Using gathered data, the council assesses the value of the natural resources on the land by taking into account endangered species, natural habitats, historical value and water sources, she said. To qualify, the land must meet criteria listed in Florida Statute 259.105, the Florida Forever Act.
“They do a detailed assessment of the natural resource values on that land to see how does that land help meet those Florida Forever goals and measures,” she said.
Mike Wisenbaker, archaeology supervisor at the department of state division of historical resources, said one of the most important factors within the process is that all of the council members work together in each and every field review. However, on projects with specific natural resource values, a certain group will take control.
“While this entire process is very much a joint effort, each council member and their staff use their own best discretion in ultimately deciding how to rank these projects,” he wrote in an email.
Peter Frederick, Ph.D., research professor at the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, has been a member of the ARC council for six years.
Frederick, whose last meeting as council member was Friday, said narrowing the list by ranking each property each year could get difficult.
“Imagine trying to score 40 or more properties on 40 or more different attributes,” he said. “That can be really tough.”
However, he believes the wide variety of conservation lands within the state is crucial to attract tourism and retirees as well as protect Florida’s future as a diverse ecosystem.
“If you couple that with the warm environment in the winter, this is what’s bringing people to Florida,” he said. “Some may think it’s the beaches, but the uniqueness of the Florida landscape is one thing that the people come to see. That’s one reason we’re a destination and we always will be.”
The multi-value point ranking system the council uses was enacted about five years ago, just after Frederick joined the group. He feels confident that the system allows the council to work efficiently and transparently, he said.
Each acquisition requires negotiation between the seller and buyer, Gengenbach said. This can bring up obstacles where the seller pulls out or the budget doesn’t allow a huge expense.
However, Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, was passed in November in an effort to restore funding into the Florida Forever program, whose budget was cut severely in 2008 due to the recession.
The amendment, which passed with a 75 percent in favor, is designed to give 33 percent of documentary stamp tax revenue to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund over the next 20 years.
“If we receive increased funding, we will know where to spend it,” Gengenbach said. “We have a very good process in place for determining conservation priorities.”
As for whether Amendment 1 will directly help the Florida Forever program, “it’s far too early to tell,” she said.
“That amendment requires implementing legislation in order to decide how the funds that are under that amendment will be distributed and for which projects,” she said.
The priority list will be presented to a board of trustees, consisting of the governor and cabinet, in May 2015 for their approval. It will guide which projects will be negotiated for purchase with funds from the state legislature, she said. According to the ARC, the board of trustees may approve or reject specific projects from the list, but they cannot change the priorities allocated.
With almost 10 million acres of conservation land in Florida, Florida Forever and its predecessor P2000 programs have purchased over 2 million acres of property—that’s about the size of Puerto Rico.
From a conservationist viewpoint, Frederick urges state citizens to take advantage of the opportunities.
“Get out there and enjoy it,” Frederick said. “If you look at any other state, it’s really hard to see as much great unique property as we’ve got in Florida. There’s plenty of chances to get out there.”