Land deals could help Florida Wildlife Corridor

Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved $17.8 million in land conservation deals that include protecting two properties that are part of an envisioned wildlife corridor stretching from the Keys to the Panhandle.

With mounting support for the corridor, which is expected to cost billions of dollars and take decades to complete, DeSantis and the Cabinet have approved two conservation easements in Osceola and Marion counties that are linked to the plan. Conservation easements protect the property from development, but allow activities such as ranching to continue.

The state will spend $1.89 million to preserve Collins’ 287-acre ranch in Osceola County from future development and $3 million for a similar deal that includes 135 acres along the Rainbow River in Marion County. Livestock operations will continue in both.

The deals will help implement the Florida Wildlife Refuge Act of 2021, which calls for an annual injection of $300 million in an effort to tie up 18 million acres of land.

About 8 million of those acres must be secured, with a goal of adding 900,000 acres by the end of this decade.

Florida Wildlife Foundation CEO Mallory Demmett said “consistent funding” is key to the trail’s success.

“While much of the land in the corridor has been protected, these vital connections remain, and maintaining them is getting more expensive every day,” Dimmett told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural Resources on the Tuesday before the Cabinet meeting.

Subcommittee Chairman Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, estimated the corridor could require $5 billion to $6 billion to complete, and lawmakers would need to adjust regulations to speed up acquisitions.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge for us, and driving revenue, enough to get it done quickly. We’re in a two-minute drill here,” Altman said. “And then creating a legal structure. … We need a lot of help from the private sector too, from lobbyists, lawyers, law firms and landowners.”

An assessment of Florida’s protected lands released Jan. 6 by the legislature’s Bureau of Economic and Demographic Research reported that $33.37 million had been spent through Dec. 30 of the $300 million appropriated in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The money came from federal stimulus dollars.

DeSantis and the Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson — agreed on Tuesday to purchase the land considered to be adjacent to the corridor’s potential route.

That property, Dimmett said, includes 2,529 acres of farmland in northwest Okeechobee County that touches land in the pass. At $8.22 million, of which $2.95 million will be covered by the USAF, the land is part of a buffer zone around the Avon Park Air Force domain.

Senate President Kathleen Basidomo, R-Naples, promoted the planned wildlife corridor and said she’d like to see bike and walking trails meandering through farming communities and wildlife areas from Naples to Orlando.

While Pacidomo expected the work to take two decades to complete, she described the trail as “our central park”.

DeSantis last week secured continued funding for the corridor as part of a four-year, $3.5 billion order for environmental projects focused largely on the Everglades and water quality problems.

When asked Tuesday about his goals for the next four years, Simpson noted “making sure we remain fiscally responsible in Florida and working with the Wilderness Corridor legislature.”

Other deals approved Tuesday included two Florida Forever land acquisitions that cost a combined $4.65 million for just over 208 acres in Nassau and Charlotte counties.

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