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Environment

SW Florida Conservation Priorities a Sign of Life for ‘Florida Forever’

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Matthew Paulson via Flickr creative commons
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Sunrise at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved a work plan in June that prioritizes several projects aimed at buying, conserving and managing environmentally sensitive land in Southwest Florida. 

The five-year work plan includes adding more than 2,841 acres to the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed project, or CREW.  CREW is a partnership between Collier and Lee Counties as well as the South Florida Water Management District and other agencies to buy, preserve and maintain 60,000 acres of land important to the region’s water supply and imperiled wildlife.  The acreage targeted in the work plan is just north of the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County.

Plans for that property include restoring wetlands, and addressing harmful dumping of wastewater into the Sanctuary and other CREW preserve land. 

Southwest Florida Policy Association for Audubon Florida, Brad Cornell, said the work plan also prioritizes an expansion of the Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods project to include Bear Branch and Hog Branch Creeks.

“They’re wonderful tributary creeks to the Charlotte Harbor estuary and its part of an effort to redirect flows to Charlotte Harbor as they originally were before we did a lot of ditching and diking and draining for agriculture and urban development,” said Cornell.  “There’s been a considerable amount of flooding in North Fort Myers.  These kinds of efforts to move that water, instead of south, to move it west into Charlotte Harbor and the estuary are really really important for, not only the ecology, but also the security of these residences.”

A third priority project aims to purchase more than 4,500 hundred acres of Blackbeard’s Ranch in Manatee County which boarders Myakka State Park.

Cornell said these inland watershed management projects also have positive impacts further west.

“The principle is you cannot protect or have good outcomes in the downstream estuaries or wetlands or habitats; Say Estero Bay or the Caloosahatchee River, or Sanibel, Pine Island Sound, Rookery Bay, any of these wonderful places that attract tourism and generate huge amounts of tourism dollars. None of this is possible unless you protect what is upstream.”

Cornell said the prioritization of these projects is a sign that there is still life in the state’s iconic conservation land buying program, Florida Forever

Since Florida Forever’s inception in 2001 to 2007, state lawmakers allocated about $300 million a year for Florida Forever projects.  However, Florida Forever has not seen nearly that level of support from lawmakers since cuts were made amid budget shortfalls during the great recession.

Funding for priority projects in the recently approved work plan would come from a portion of real estate taxes set aside for conservation land buying as directed by the voter approved constitutional Amendment One in 2014.  Cornell reminds that Amendment One was approved by 75 percent of Florida voters.

“They (the voters) were concerned that the legislature had not been putting very much, if any money, into conservation land buying and management and so that was an effort state-wide to send that message to the legislature,” said Cornell. 

“The legislature hasn’t heard that message very clearly. For instance, in this legislative session (legislators) put zero dollars into Florida Forever.  That’s a big disappointment and we think it’s very very shortsighted on the part of the legislature and we would like to see it next year be much more robust.”