Progress for Florida Forever
Florida Forever, one of the state's most effective initiatives, has been virtually left for dead during the economic downturn. So it was encouraging Tuesday to see Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet sign off on the pursuit of 21 parcels. But it's time that state leaders look at giving a much bigger boost to the struggling program. As the Sun Sentinel reports, the governor's and Cabinet's vote will allow the Department of Environmental Protection to try to buy those 21 projects with $8 million lawmakers put in the budget.That modest funding is a far cry from the days when the program spent $300 million a year to preserve environmentally valuable land, using a portion of the documentary stamp tax collected on real-estate transactions. But lawmakers essentially abandoned Florida Forever when the economy — and real estate sales — tanked. This was understandable, but unfortunate, because taxpayers and the state economy benefit from the preservation of our natural treasures. The policy of purchasing from willing buyers also protects property owners' rights. Republican Gov. Bob Martinez understood the program's return on investment when he launched Preservation 2000 in 1990. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush similarly appreciated the value of buying significant wilderness tracts when he continued the program as Florida Forever nearly a decade later. Both these committed conservatives knew that recklessly bulldozing the places that make Florida so appealing would diminish the state's economic prospects and create costly pollution and other problems for taxpayers. They knew that people want to live and work in a state with natural beauty and abundant outdoor recreational opportunities. And Florida cannot sustain its growing population if it does not safeguard its natural water supply. Now, thanks to Florida Forever, the state has preserved more than 2.5 million acres, including land along springs, rivers and beaches. Money from the program also has been used to buy development rights in arrangements that preserve aquifer-recharge and wilderness areas without infringing on landowners' rights. Given the current lack of funding, Florida Forever has been dramatically recast, with the governor and Cabinet spending money only on efforts that will protect water quality and buffer military bases or that will complete deals already under way. Such a restricted scope is necessary given the lack of funding. But as the state emerges from the recession, it would be foolish to continue to shortchange Florida Forever. Environmental groups are pushing the Florida Water and Land Legacy Campaign, a 2014 constitutional amendment that would ensure a dedicated funding source for land acquisition, using at least 33 percent of net revenues from doc stamps. Such a reliable funding source is essential. But it shouldn't take a constitutional amendment for Scott and lawmakers to see they need to restore Florida Forever's power to protect the natural heritage that makes the state such a wonderful place to live.