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Future Of South Florida Conservation Lands In Limbo; Public Asked To Weigh In

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How valuable are state-managed conservation lands? It's a question the South Florida Water Management District has put to the public in a multi-month assessment of fee-owned lands throughout the state.

The long-range projects hits close to home this month as large tracts of land in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties are currently up for debate. State conservationalists are calling on South Florida residents to weigh in on the future of many of these environmentally crucial lands.  

RELATED: Like Kayaking The Loxahatchee River? Public Asked To Weight In On Future Of State Lands

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Since early 2013, the SFWMD has been in the process of assessing the use of about 750,000 acres, dividing the lands into five separate regions. The Everglades Assessment Region-- which encompasses all of Miami-Dade and Broward counties and much of Palm Beach County -- is the final section up for review. Depending on the outcome of the assessment, public lands could be designated for "surplus." Surplus lands can be made available for public sale or trade, or put to alternative use. 

On the potential chopping block: Marsh lands in the South Miami-Dade Wetlands, Biscayne Bay-adjacent properties, and land that abuts Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Other parcels -- such as Frog Pond -- are important components in a complex, managed water system meant to maintain and restore water-flow to the Everglades. 

Audubon Florida has stressed the ecological significance of the some of the lands, citing their use as protected habitat for endangered species like the Florida panther, snail kite, and wood stork. The conservation group says that while some of the district materials emphasize the infiltration of exotic species -- such as Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, and melaleuca -- many of the up-for-debate lands provide vital habitat for native species.

The group urges folks to weigh in on the value of the properties at stake, lest the lands "be rendered more vulnerable to being declared surplus and sold, or perhaps leased to agriculture and lime rock mine companies for commercial exploitation."

The public has indeed taken the time to weigh in on the SFWMD project as it has progressed. Public comment on the East Coast Assessment Region (which includes portions of Palm Beach County) included input from dozens of South Florida residents who advocated for the continued protection of public lands for activities like canoeing, kayaking, birding, hiking, and hunting. (Read their comments here.)  

The SFWMD is accepting public input on the Everglades Assessment Region through July 8. Comments can be submitted via an online form. They'll also hold a public workshop from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesday, June 26, at the SFWMD Headquarters at 3301 Gun Club Road in West Palm Beach. At 1 p.m., they'll further discuss the East Coast Assessment Region, including all of the draft staff recommendations that were created following the input period. Public comment on those recommendations also is being accepted through July 8. 

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