Ag Commissioner Bronson challenges land-buying

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson during a Cabinet meeting today challenged other supporters of the state’s Florida Forever land-buying program to determine how many more acres the state needs for conservation.

The state has purchased 2.4 million acres since 1990 under Florida Forever and a predecessor program. Gov. Charlie Crist proposed $300 million for the program in 2009-10, but neither the House nor Senate have included money for it in their proposed budgets.

Cabinet members, including Bronson, voted today to adopt an updated purchase list with five new projects totaling more than 29,000 acres. But Bronson challenged Andrew McLeod of The Nature Conservancy after McLeod quoted studies citing the public support and economic benefits of Florida Forever.

“There is nobody who loves wildlife and natural resources more than I do — I like to get out in it,” Bronson said. “But I think we have to sit down and take a look at how far are we going to go, how much are we going to take off the tax roll, how are we going to take care of the land?”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole responded that nearly one-third of the lands on the state’s purchase list are “conservation easements” — the very type of project that Bronson advocates. Crist was absent because bad weather prevented him from flying back from Tampa.

The state already owns 5.2 million acres of conservation lands, which is 15 percent of Florida’s 34.7 million acres total. The federal government owns another 4 million acres of conservation land, according to a 2008 report by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.

The Nature Conservancy last week issued poll results showing that 81 percent of Floridians have a positive impression of Florida Forever. Another report issued last month by TNC found that visitors to Florida’s 161 state parks give the state economy a $1-billion economic shot in the arm.

But Bronson countered that the state should pursue more conservation easements in which the state purchases development rights but landowners retain ownership while paying taxes and producing products.

“We are looking at those tools to shape the future of Florida Forever,” Sole, the DEP secretary, responded.

After the meeting, McLeod said Bronson had raised a good question about how many acres the state needs to own. But McLeod said it’s a difficult question to answer — and one the state is working on.

“We know there are habitat needs not being met today for any number of (threatened and endangered) species,” McLeod said.

“We need to do more we need to invest in more protected habitat,” he said. “That is part of the answer to the question of, ‘How much is enough?’ “