Funding Florida’s Land Conservation

Floating atop a deep ethereal freshwater spring with a manatee lazily drifting by, watching the sunrise over a Gulf Coast salt marsh on the way out to go red fishing, or standing in a mist-covered pine forest while migratory birds revel in the wildness — all of these activities can take place on lands protected through the premier state-funded Florida Forever program. 

Florida Forever

This program allows the state of Florida to purchase priority properties for public enjoyment and species protection for generations to come. Tourists and locals alike find joy in these pockets and corridors of conserved lands, protected waters, and open spaces in Florida. Past Republican and Democratic leadership funded the Florida Forever historic rates of $300 million per year, but in recent years, this once-robust funding pool has dwindled from historic levels.

lupine growing on sandy shore
Gulf Coast Lupine (Lupinus westianus) at the outfall of No-Name Lake found in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Nic Stoltzfus

Development, land intensification and sprawl continue to convert lands that safeguard drinking water, provide critical wildlife habitat and keep Florida a thriving space for our tourism-backed economy. To counter this pressure, in 2014, 75% of Florida’s voters supported the Water and Land Legacy Constitutional Amendment. This amendment specifically directed that the Florida Forever program, the state’s premier land conservation program where properties are purchased from willing sellers for permanent protection, be fully and adequately funded. These funds come from costs from real estate transactions, or documentary stamp taxes, thus creating a cycle of real estate and development curbing some of its own impacts.

Right now, about 30% of all of Florida’s lands are currently conserved. If all the properties that are currently nominated for protection under Florida Forever were protected, this percentage would move up to about 41%. However, the timeline for this incredible goal supported by Florida voters is where this narrative loses traction. A 2021 assessment completed by Florida’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research determined that “at the current rate of annual state conservation land acquisition expenditures, it would take about 370 years to generate the state’s share…”

In order to protect the lands, that one study has estimated we are losing at a rate of  10 acres of rural and natural lands per hour to development, we must do more. The current proposed budget by Gov. Ron DeSantis for 2022 would dedicate $100 million to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for Florida Forever. Past Republican and Democratic leadership funded the Florida Forever historic rates of $300 million per year. To date, the Legislature has not done what Floridians voted for and Florida Forever has never rebounded to its full funding potential.

wildlife management area landscape
Big Bend Wildlife Management Area. Credit: Melissa Hill

The current proposed budget fails to provide the level of funding this water, wildlife, and economy saving program needs to function on all cylinders. 

As Florida continues being developed at record rates and climate change alters our coasts and way of life, our environment remains at risk. Together with our state affiliate, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation is asking our elected officials to provide full funding to Florida Forever this legislative session and the years following.