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State will exhaust budget for agriculture conservation easements by year’s end

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The state would run out of money to buy agricultural conservation land easements by the end of 2017 under the budget approved by the Legislature, the head of the Florida Forest Service said Wednesday.

The service asked for $50 million and got $10 for the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program, land program administrator John Browne told aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. Combined with about $11 million for the current fiscal year, that would leave around $21 million for easement acquisition, Browne said.

“So you’ll see easements at least until the end of this calendar year. After that, it’s kind of questionable,” Browne said.

That would mean placing “one or two” acquisitions per month before the governor and Cabinet though the year’s end, he added.

Last year, the Legislature gave the service $35 for easements under the program. The new budget would take effect on July 1.

Scott and the Cabinet have two acquisitions on their May 23 agenda — $7 million on 4,177 acres of the Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee County, and $1.5 million in state and federal money for 1,034 acres of the S.Y. Hartt Ranch in Highland County.

Both are Tier One targets for the Forest Service, and both are deemed critical to recharge zones for the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and other state waterways.

The $11 million would be left following those acquisitions. Surveys, site assessments, and related costs take up between 5 percent and 7 percent of the cost of acquisitions, Browne told reporters following the meeting.

Being ranked Tier One means “we want them bad,” he said.

Both Triple S and Harrt support extensive natural habitat and represent important water recharge areas. “These ranches are impeccable,” Browne said.

Moreover, the Harrt Ranch easements would protect the military’s Avon Park bombing range from encroaching development — helping to keep the facility and its payroll in Florida.

The program keeps valuable agricultural lands free from intensive development — and also to protect historical and environmental treasures.

The Legislature did pass SB 10, a $1.5 billion plan to restore Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. That commitment absorbed many of the state’s resources for environmental conservation.

Does Browne worry about the program’s future?

“I’m not really worried about it, because the constituency that we support, they’re very vocal about it. They love the program. They’ll continue to lobby. We’ll continue to push for it. We’re doing a lot of good things. This just happened to be a year where there were other things that were determined to be more important,” he said.

Without money to spend on new acquisitions, the service will continue to scout prospects for the future and keep an eye on existing easements, Browne said.

“We’ve got a really small group of people who do this. Actually, there’s only three or four of us. So we’ve got plenty of work to do.”

Still, without new money, the program will leave “a lot — thousands” of acres on the table, Browne said.

“This is a real problem,” Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper said.

“Florida is developing very quickly and these landowners have a choice — ‘Do I develop the land, or do I try and hold onto it in difficult economic circumstances, or to I try to wait until the state can come up with some money to provide an easement,” Draper said.

“These landowners are stepping forward and being willing for essentially a fraction of the price of the land commit to protecting it perpetually,” he said. “Fifteen hundred dollars an acre is a huge bargain for the state of Florida.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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