State environmental chief questions land-buying program

Some environmental groups may be in agreement with Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard that the state’s land-buying list needs closer scrutiny.

Vinyard last week announced that $700 million was being cut from budgets of the state’s five water management districts. More than $200 million of the cuts were from the districts’ land acquisition programs.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $305 million in spending authority for the Florida Forever land-buying program. He included it in $600 million in total vetoes of what he called “special interest” spending in the 2011-12 state budget.

Environmental groups roundly criticized Scott for vetoing the spending, which would only have used proceeds from the sale of existing conservation lands.

Florida had the largest land-buying program in the nation with more than 2 million acres purchased since 1990. The program enjoyed support from Republican and Democratic governors before Scott took office this year.

In a recent interview, Vinyard pointed out that one-third of the state already is government-owned. “I think there needs to be an evaluation — when are we there? When do we succeed?” he said.

The state and federal government together manage 32 percent — or 11.3 million — of the 34.7 million acres, according to DEP. But those figures may be somewhat misleading.

The federal government manages 5.4 million, while the state manages nearly 5.9 million acres. But hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land and more than 30 percent of state land is underwater — so it’s not like it was going to be developed or farmed anyway.

And questions like “How much is enough?” often gloss over the fact that there is more to the Florida Forever program than just the big land purchase.

Florida Forever also has paid for conservation easements on private agricultural land, seafood projects under the three-year-old Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts program and community parks under Florida Communities Trust. Although Florida Forever has no new money, Florida Communities Trust this week awarded $17 million in left over past funding for eight new park projects.

Still, there are nearly 2 million acres on the Florida Forever list that are remaining to be purchased and there is no new funding in sight.

Vinyard said last week he thinks it’s important to hear from the public and elected officials on how much is enough conservation land in the state.

“I don’t see that there was any clear criteria about what we were buying other than it was for sale,” he said. “Clearly we had some big wins. Florida was able to acquire some beautiful lands for conservation. We will be thankful for that for generations to come. But I think we need to just take a pause and evaluate what we’re doing and why.”

Environmentalists defend the overall land-buying process as scientific but some say the purchase list could be given a closer look.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said he hasn’t hesitated to criticize DEP under Scott. But he also thinks there is a need for prioritizing future land purchases and deciding how to pay for them.

“I think that’s the discussion that Secretary Vinyard is prompting,” Draper said. “Audubon is not going to start out at the same place as Secretary Vinyard on this discussion. But I think this discussion has got to take place.”

“Because we’re (in reality) somewhere between ‘The state has too much land and needs to start selling some’ and ‘We need to buy everything on the Florida Forever list.’ Those two ideas are really far apart.”

“We public lands advocates need to come to the table and help provide some solutions,” Draper said.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from