Coalition says Florida Forever should be top funding priority

Conservationists want more funding to protect natural springs and other sensitive waterways and land. Photo: Kelly DelValle

Sensitive lands throughout Florida, including natural springs, prairies and the iconic Florida Everglades, deserve greater funding, say conservation leaders and business people who held seven public events over the weekend to underscore their ongoing efforts.

Florida Forever Days of Action events were coordinated in Fort Myers, Gainesville, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Fort Walton, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola to call on the 2020 Legislature to fully fund the voter-approved constitutional mandate to conserve sensitive lands and waterways.

Thirty conservation organizations in Florida sent about 120 people to seven public places for press conferences and rallies Friday and Saturday to drum up support.

The participants represent the coalition of 123 organizations and businesses that wrote a letter last month to Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders demanding full, annual funding for Florida Forever through the 2014 Water and Land conservation initiative. The initiative was adopted by voters as an amendment to the Florida Constitution after lawmakers ceased funding Florida Forever at its previous level of $300 million yearly.

Lawmakers are deep into drafting their 2020 budget plans ahead of the Jan. 14 opening of the legislative session.

In St. Pete, Florida Conservation Voters representative Lindsay Cross speaks at a press conference. Rep. Ben Diamond looks on. Photo: FL Conservation Coalition

“The Florida Forever Days of Action showed that we’re not going away. We stood together in 2014 and we still stand together, five years later, to speak up for conserving Florida’s wild lands,” said Haley Burger, administrator of the Florida Conservation Coalition, on Monday.

The Florida Conservation Coalition reported from the seven sites that speakers called for DeSantis and 2020 lawmakers to increase the level of funding and use the state’s bonding authority as provided in the constitutional amendment to multiply its ability to acquire sensitive lands while they are viable and available.

For nearly 20 years, until 2008, Florida Forever was funded at $300 million, according to court records. Recent appropriations for the conservation program have been capped at $100 million – far short of the amount conservationists say is required annually by the constitutional amendment.

“One year is a blip on the radar. It’s not just this one budget – we need to make a sustained commitment to this effort. That was the idea behind the constitutional amendment that Floridians passed and supported wholeheartedly,” said state rep. Ben Diamond at the St. Petersburg event, as quoted in the Conservation Coalition statement. “We’re projecting again to write a $90 billion plus budget. The money is there. This is just a debate about priorities; this should be at the top of the list.”

Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, in Gainesvville. Photo: FL Conservation Coalition

In Gainesville, speakers included Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, Anne Harvey with Save the Manatee Club, Ryan Smart with the Florida Springs Council, and Jim Gross with Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Speakers at the press conference in St. Augustine included Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman, St. Augustine’s Chief Resiliency Officer Mike Cullum,  Jane West, with 1000 Friends of Florida, and Jen Lomberk with Matanzas Riverkeeper.

“As Floridians, our health, our economy, and our quality of life depend on clean water, and one of the best ways to protect our water is to protect our land,” Lomberk said, as reported in the Conservation Coalition statement.

In the coalition’s Nov. 18 letter to DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano, House Speaker Jose Olive and appropriations chairmen, the coalition called for full funding of the Florida Forever Priority List, Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and Florida Communities Trust program, on an annual basis.

“Recent appropriations, which have been capped at $100 million, are not nearly enough to meet the needs of Florida’s environment or expectations of Florida voters,” the letter says in part. “We, and all Floridians, have waited five years since the passage of the Water and Land Conservation Amendment in 2014 to see funding for this vital environmental program restored.

“During this time, our state has experienced an increasing rate of growth equivalent to losing 10 acres of rural and natural lands per hour to development,” the letter continues, citing the “Florida 2070” joint report issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, University of Florida Geoplan Center and 1000 Friends of Florida.

The Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and Sierra Club sued the state, alleging it underfunds Florida Forever, and won a favorable ruling in 2018. Last summer, it lost when the state won its appeal. The plaintiffs are taking the case to the Florida Supreme Court.