Florida has a long history of land conservation starting in 1963 when the Land Acquisition Trust Fund was created by the Florida Legislature to fund the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Program, which would purchase land for parks and recreation areas. In 1968, a $20 million bond program was established to acquire outdoor recreation lands. In 1990, when Florida’s population grew it became clear that increasing demands would be placed on Florida’s natural resources. Then Gov. Bob Martinez proposed a $3 billion land preservation fund based upon $300 million in yearly bonded funds over 10 years. The Preservation 2000 was passed by the legislature and was the most ambitious land acquisition program of its time in the United States.
In 2000, former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature created the Florida Forever program which proposed to raise another $300 million a year over a 10 year period or $3 billion to continue to save and preserve Florida’s significant natural and cultural resources. The first decade of the program was a great success in protecting endangered plants and animals and water resources including drinking water supplies. In 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Legislature extended Florida Forever for another ten years.
These efforts produced significant economic and quality of life benefits for its residents including clean air and water, healthy fisheries and wildlife habitat. It also protected open spaces, including greenway corridors, park lands, forests and public beaches.
Since 2009, land conservation efforts have suffered. A recession coupled with a legislature that often catered to business and Gov. Scott’s emphasis on jobs devastated the program. It happened at a time when the program was most needed with Florida’s springs, estuaries, rivers, lakes and coral reefs being hurt by factors ranging from waste and fertilizer runoff to water consumption and climate change.
Years of frustration over the Legislature and Gov. Scotts willingness to reduce funding for Florida Forever, spurred environmentalists to push for a ballot proposal. The official ballot summary said the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1): Funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years. The measure passed in the November 2014 elections with 75% of voters saying yes.
However, in June when the State’s budget was passed only $17.4 million was included for Florida Forever the state’s main land conservation program. Amendment 1 should have generated an additional $300 million for environmental spending, instead the 2015-2016 budget siphons money away from the environment to other areas and uses the new money to replace it.
In late June environmental group Earthjustice filed suit against the Florida Legislature and its leaders over their budget’s use of money that was set aside for conservation by Amendment 1. The suit was filed on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. The complaint, filed in Leon County, says the language of the voter initiative was clear that the money was to go into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. “Instead of complying with the mandate of Amendment 1 and in defiance of its constitutional obligations created by that Amendment, the Legislature misappropriated $300 million of Amendment 1 funds, devoting those funds to uses not allowable for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund,” the complaint stated.
This has become a very controversial issue with environmentalists calling it a slap in the face to the over 4 million voters who helped pass Amendment 1. Should the court rule this year’s Amendment 1 funding isn’t adequate, lawmakers might have to make up the difference in next year’s budget.