Enviros support new lands ranking process approved today

In a move that environmentalists said resolves their concerns, a state panel on Friday adopted a rule that would establish a new rankings process for determining which conservation lands should be bought.

Florida’s land-buying program is the largest in the nation, with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990. But the Legislature earlier this year refused to provide any money in the state budget for the Florida Forever program for the first time since 1990.

Some environmental groups hope that a new ranking process outlined by a 2008 state law would generate more support for the program among the public and legislators. But those groups also opposed various draft versions proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that the groups said didn’t follow the law by including five categories of land use purchases:

* Critical natural lands
* Partnerships or regional incentive lands
* Substantially complete projects
* Climate change lands
* Conservation easements (less-than-fee lands)

The rule adopted by the state Acquisition and Restoration Council now goes to the governor and Cabinet and to the Legislature for approval.

“These five categories are now going to be in all the (DEP) work plans and rankings,” said Richard Hilsenbeck, director of conservation programs at the Florida chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “We are very happy with the rule.”

The rule will be used next year to re-rank the proposed 109 purchase projects within applicable categories and will divide them into high-, medium- and low-priority groupings, said Bob Ballard, DEP’s deputy secretary for lands and recreation.

The existing Florida Forever list contains only a higher-priority “A List,” including a grouping of the 21 highest priority projects, and a lower priority “B List.” Additional categories may be added to the new ranking process, such as an “inactive” category for projects that no longer are being negotiated, Ballard said. Those new categories won’t require Cabinet and legislative approval.

Hilsenbeck said he hopes the new ranking system will improve the Florida Forever program’s “transparency,” making it easier for state leaders, land-sellers and the public to understand why some lands are purchased more quickly than others.

Ballard also said the new ranking system may be easier for the public to understand.

“We always want to be as transparent as we can possibly be,” Ballard said. “I think that is what the Legislature was looking for.”

Photo of the Big Bend coast copyrighted by James Valentine, used with permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com.)