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Legislators are poised to direct $100 million toward the Florida Wildlife Corridor

Carlton Ward Jr.

State officials next week could direct nearly $100 million to secure more than 35,500 acres of primarily ranch land for the growing statewide Wildlife Corridor, while keeping agricultural operations on the properties in place.

Twelve land deals on the May 23 agenda before Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet involve conservation easements, which allow the current landowners to continue active hunting, farming and cattle operations. In exchange, the land would be kept from residential and commercial development.

“By partnering with willing farmers to preserve working agricultural lands from development, we can protect their immense economic and environmental benefits while being good stewards of our tax dollars,” Aaron Keller, spokesman for Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, said in an email on Tuesday when asked about the proposals.

READ MORE: Bills to fully fund preservation of the Florida Wildlife Corridor are lagging

DeSantis and the Cabinet — Simpson, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody — will address the land deals while sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund during next week’s meeting.

The agreements would help carry out the 2021 Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. The act calls for pumping $300 million a year into an effort envisioned as connecting 18 million acres of land for wildlife and the public, from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who has championed the corridor, has dubbed the project Florida’s “Central Park.”

About 8 million acres need to be secured, with a goal of adding 900,000 acres by the end of the decade.

Nine of the deals up for consideration next Tuesday cover a combined 18,279 acres in St. Lucie, DeSoto, Walton, Hardee, Polk, Highlands and Charlotte counties. The projects would be funded through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

“It’s a lot. It’s exciting,” Christie Utt, who works for the program, said after outlining the projects during a Cabinet aides meeting Wednesday. “Hopefully we’ll keep it up.”

The program was a priority of the Cabinet while Adam Putnam was agriculture commissioner from 2011 through 2018, but saw funding decline during the four-year tenure of Putnam’s successor, Nikki Fried. Fried now serves as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Of the nine proposals, the most expensive deal involves 3,068 acres used for rotational grazing along the Kissimmee River in Highlands County. The proposal carries a $12.35 million price tag.

Another proposal would spend $11.637 million for 3,496-acres within the Cow Creek Ranch, which straddles the boundary of St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.

A staff report said the land is within the St. Lucie River Estuary basin, which is a focal point of the Central Everglades Restoration Project.

Simpson has said he wants to quickly spend $300 million in land-conservation money that became available after he took office in January.

Keller noted that, as the state starts to spend the current fiscal year’s allocation, the deals before the Internal Improvement Trust Fund will use $9 million remaining from funds previously allocated by the Legislature.

An additional 17,302 acres spread over St. Lucie, Jefferson and Glades counties, are to draw $36.48 million through the Florida Forever land acquisition program.

The largest Florida Forever deal on the table Tuesday involves 10,464 acres in Glades County owned by Lykes Bros., Inc. The Fisheating Creek land, on the table for $20.75 million, is ranked number one in the Florida Forever Less-Than-Fee project category and is part of a 190,739 acre ecosystem. More than 85,000 acres of the project have been acquired or are under agreement to be acquired.

State leaders in recent legislative sessions have increased their focus on the corridor.

The proposed state budget for fiscal year 2023-2024 (SB 2500) includes $1 billion within the Department of Environmental Protection for land acquisition, including the Florida Forever program. The funds include $850 million for the corridor.

Another $100 million is directed to Simpson’s Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. DeSantis has not received the proposed state spending plan yet.

In January, DeSantis and the Cabinet agreed to spend $1.89 million to keep the 287-acre Collins Ranch in Osceola County from future development through a conservation easement and $3 million for a similar deal involving 135 acres along the Rainbow River in Marion County.

Three other conservation easements tied to the Wildlife Corridor were approved in March: $12.8 million for 4,222 acres in central Osceola County; $5.621 million for 1,611 acres in Manatee County; and $4 million for 1,285 acres in southwestern Highlands County.
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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida
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