October 16, 2023

Northeast Florida is at a crossroads of history for land conservation, and it is literally Now or Never. The people of Florida and their leaders have stepped up to the plate. Now it is time for you, the landowners, to step up to the plate in response.  

If we do it right, there is a lot of money to be made for landowners while at the same time, our grandchildren will get to see what the real Florida looks like. If we do it wrong, shame on us as we watch our end of Florida become like Orlando, cheapening property and lifestyle values. We can truly have it all if we choose, so let’s choose!

The leaders of Florida have spoken, again and again. Under Republican and Democratic governors, initiatives to preserve our natural lands have been advanced. Preservation 2000 under Gov. Martinez put $2 billion into land conservation in 1990 when that was considerable money. Gov. Bush matched it with Florida Forever in 1999. These initiatives built upon the Save Our Everglades and similar initiatives of governors Askew, Graham and Chiles/MacKay. Gov. DeSantis has made ample budget provisions for environmental targets. In Florida, the love of our environment is bipartisan, as it befits its wonder and clear economic impact; even the built attractions like Disney seek to recreate Florida’s outdoors.

Florida’s voters have done their part. No statewide initiative on the environment in our state has received less than 70% of the vote. In 2014 a citizen initiative, led by former Gov./Sen. Bob Graham as the Democrat and the undersigned as the Republican created a dedicated pipeline of funding for environmental acquisition, restoration and maintenance in the billions. The effort received more than 70% of the vote statewide, carried all but four counties, and in some it received over 80% of the vote. No state and few nations have ever acted so boldly. The funding, which is tied to real estate sales, has skyrocketed in recent years as our population has exploded. 

Local efforts mirrored these statewide initiatives. Referenda were passed in 27 counties, starting in Volusia and have been renewed in all counties where offered for renewal. Conservation initiatives were also passed in 55 municipalities. Locally, Duval made a big land acquisition effort under Mayor Delaney, including gems such as Little and Big Talbot islands. More recently Nassau County passed its CLAM (Conservation Land Acquisition and Management) bonding for $30 million, with 58% of the vote, and Clay is preparing to take a similar plan to its voters in 2024. At the grassroots, Floridians care.

This year, even after some vetoes, the total commitment of state funding was over $900 million. To this base, our House of Representatives Speaker Paul Renner courageously added a similar amount targeting wildlife corridors, including an eye-popping $400 million for our own O2O, Ocala-to-Osceola corridor. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Federal partners have also come into play.  For example, these efforts expand buffer lands around military bases such as Camp Blanding, vital to national security and to our economy. Initiatives aimed at salt marshes and resiliency are aborning.

The toolkit has also been expanded. In addition to fee simple acquisition of lands, which then require ongoing management, efforts increasingly involve conservation easements that allow the landowner to retain ownership and traditional uses such as timber or farming while pocketing the value of development rights. Innovative developers, such as at Babcock Ranch, have discovered that blending conservation into their development plans, for open space and recreation can actually increase the value of the lands actually developed. The majority of people in Florida living on golf courses are there for the open space, not the golf, and it is a cheaper alternative for the developer. Environmental mitigation, though controversial to some, has allowed monetization of efforts to restore and enhance the environment.

In sum, We the People have stepped up to the plate. North Florida Land Trust has, for 24 years, led these efforts, helping establish and/or working with other regional and national partners in our region.

Landowners, it is now batter-up! 

Without willing sellers, these massive efforts to create willing buyers will come to nothing. There are tools that allow you to “cash out”, in farming terms, your development rights, while staying in traditional uses, and enjoying those income streams into the future. You are also often better stewards than the State would ever be, and that can be recognized. There are Win/Win alternatives.

Finally, this old Florida Cracker whose family have been in Florida now for nine generations speaks to the heart of you who own the land. You own it because you love it, and often have for generations. You, like me, have seen it slipping away, now seeming to gallop away. Like me, you want our grandchildren to know the Real Florida, while also making provision for them economically.

There are ways and means now to do this, and they will not be available forever. Some of us are old enough to know that big budgets can turn quickly into ‘sweep the trust funds’ when a recession inevitably arrives.  North Florida Land Trust, your local land trust, stand ready to help. The money is here. It is truly Now or Never. You know it in your heart.

Please act!

Rev. Cn. Allison DeFoor, President of the North Florida Land Trust, served as Everglades Czar for Florida. His family has been in Florida since it belonged to Spain.