Groups question district’s decision to sell conservation lands

Statewide environmental groups are objecting to the Suwannee River Water Management District’s designation of “surplus” lands that could be sold and say they will ask Gov. Charlie Crist to intervene.

Florida has the largest conservation land-buying program in the nation with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990.

Some legislators say the state has too much land and should sell some of it (See “Florida For Sale,” by the Florida Tribune). But some supporters of the Florida Forever land-buying program say most land has conservation values and that it’s a myth that state has a lot of surplus land. Since May, the Suwannee River Water Management District has identified nine parcels with 760 acres that it says are surplus and can be sold.

But five environmental groups including Audubon of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and The Nature Conservancy say they believe the district’s efforts violate the state constitution. The constitution allows the Cabinet and other agency governing boards to sell conservation land only if it is no longer needed for conservation purposes.

In a June 21 letter to the district, the groups cite the proposed sale of 110 acres along the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers in Gilchrist County as one example of surplus property that still has conservation value. The property is the sole connection between other water management district lands along the rivers and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 1,330-acre wildlife area near Fort White, the groups said.

David Still, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said the agency plans to use money from the sale of the lands to buy more land that is more valuable for conservation, such as river floodplains and springs. The district also would place restrictions on the lands it sells to prevent development.

“If you weigh that [conservation value of existing land] against another property that has higher conservation values, wouldn’t you always want to buy the property with the higher conservation values?” Still said.

But Guy Anglin, a retired U.S. Forest Service ecologist from Bascom, said selling some land could create numerous management problems for managing the remaining public land by allowing more private ownership along the boundaries. And he said it remains to be seen whether the district would purchase more valuable conservation land.

“When you sell it, it’s gone,” Anglin said. “You can always wait and sell it later.”

The district has delayed the sale of a 330-acre parcel near Manatee Springs State Park in Levy County after residents there said the land would be a good addition to the state park, Still said.

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