State moves to preserve thousands of acres

With little comment, Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Tuesday to spend more than $22 million to preserve three pieces of land covering 14,000 acres, with much of the money coming from the Florida Forever conservation program.

Two of the deals, involving cattle ranches in Polk and Okeechobee counties, cost a combined $6.16 million and will be funded through the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program. That program, backed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has become a more-common way in recent years for the Cabinet to protect land from future development.

The third, and largest, of the deals, at $16.1 million for 11,027 acres south of Tallahassee, came through Florida Forever, which once was the primary program for land acquisition in the state.

The deal in Leon and Jefferson counties is the largest "fee simple" acquisition since the state spent $308 million for 67,618 acres of Babcock Ranch property in Southwest Florida in a deal completed in 2006.

It differs from the ranch deals, which involve the state buying what are known as "conservation easements." Such easements typically allow landowners to continue longstanding uses of their property, such as farming and ranching.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, praised the purchase of the land in Leon and Jefferson counties.

"It's a big day for land conservation," Draper said. "This is first large piece fee-simple project, meaning they bought it, they didn't just do it as a conservation easement. We haven't see something like this in maybe a decade."

With some Republican legislative leaders questioning the need for the state to acquire more land, Florida Forever doesn't have nearly the funding it had before the recession, when the program received up to $300 million a year. Scott and the three current members of the Cabinet were all first elected in 2010.

The Florida Forever purchase approved Tuesday is for land, known as Horn Spring Woods, that contains 10 natural springs and has nearly 10 miles of meandering frontage along the St. Marks River. The purchase also will create an environmental corridor linking the St. Marks River Preserve State Park to the north, the Fanlew Preserve and Aucilla Wildlife Management Area to the east and the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park to the south, according to a description provided to the Cabinet.

The acquisition of the land from the Salt Lake City-based Natural Bridge Timberland, LLC has been a priority of Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson.

"The hydrological significance of this property can't be highlighted enough, and the recreational opportunities are superb," Steverson said.

Part of the land, which will remain open for hunting and other recreational activities such as fishing and kayaking, will be in part managed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

Before moving to the Department of Environmental Protection, Steverson spent two years with the water management district.

Natural Bridge Timberland bought the land in March 2014 for $13.67 million as part of a broader 300,000-acre deal, as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought timberland throughout North Florida.

Meanwhile, in the other deals approved Tuesday, Scott and the Cabinet agreed to pay $2.91 million to Lake Hatchineha Ranch, LLC for a 1,619-acre conservation easement in Polk County and $3.25 million to Pelaez and Sons, Inc., for a 1,410-acre conservation easement northwest of the city of Okeechobee.

In a prepared statement, Putnam called the easements "the most cost-effective way to preserve these invaluable pieces of our rural economy and environment for future generations." Under the current Cabinet, the state has now used the Rural & Family Lands program for 30 purchases totaling 25,343 acres.

The Rural & Family Lands and Florida Forever programs get funding from a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that directs money from a tax on real-estate transactions for land and water preservation and upkeep.

Kent Wimmer of the Northwest Florida Defenders of Wildlife said the Horn Spring Woods purchase should be seen a model for future acquisitions.

"This is a critical link in a whole wildlife habitat network that extends through the entire Panhandle," Wimmer said. "It connects the Gulf (of Mexico) all the way up to the Red Hills (north of Tallahassee)."