TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online.
Tuesday, Mar 28, 2017

Editorial: Preserving Florida’s great outdoors

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is wise to seek property owners’ help in pursuing land conservation.

After a recessionary lull, the state’s population growth is returning to full throttle, making it critical to preserve valuable natural areas.

And that won’t happen without the help of private property owners.

Commission staff has identified about 19 million acres of significant wildlife habitat on privately owned lands.

The state will never be able to buy every key parcel, nor should it try, given that much of it exists on ranches and other productive agricultural operations.

But by collaborating with landowners, the state could develop strategies to preserve habitat without threatening the landowners.

As FWC Chairman Richard Corbett of Tampa said at its meeting the other day, “To the average person, government is regulation, stop, start, but our view is different. We want to find out how we can step in to make the land better and lives better, and how we can all work together.”

These owners have been good stewards. But they can’t be blamed for worrying about government controls curtailing their financial opportunities.

As Tribune/Scripps correspondent John Osborne reports, the commission is already working with landowners, offering them incentives to preserve property and helping them with conservation plans and wildlife management.

The state should continue to build on such collaboration.

Nobody understands the land like those who make their living from it.

And conservation can offer financial benefits. Hunters, for instance, routinely lease the hunting rights to ranch land. Some landowners capitalize on the increasing popularity of “ecotourism,” where people visit areas to canoe, bird watch, hike, camp or otherwise enjoy nature.

Important to the state’s natural assets is the adoption of the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) in November.

It would not increase taxes, but would dedicate 33 percent of documentary stamp tax revenue to land preservation. This was roughly the traditional amount spent on saving valuable environmental lands under the Florida Forever program until state lawmakers virtually abandoned the effort in recent years.

The amendment would generate money that could be used to buy conservation rights from ranchers and farmers, which would protect habitat without interfering with their enterprises.

It also could help the state establish a Florida wildlife corridor linking habitat throughout the state.

In 2012, photographer Carlton Ward led a 100-day, 1,000-mile expedition from the Everglades to Georgia, highlighting the importance of keeping natural systems connected.

Amazingly, despite Florida’s great growth, the possibility of preserving such a corridor still exists, but it will take additional land acquisitions and, perhaps even more important, agreements with private landowners.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s approach to preserving the great Florida outdoors — and its recreational opportunities — is correct. Work with landowners — don’t make enemies of them.