Friday, March 18, 2016

State Lands Bill Passes

Despite the best efforts of Sierra Club Florida staff and volunteers the State Lands bill passed both chambers and will be sent to the Governor.   This is a disappointing outcome for the volunteers who lobbied their legislators to stop a key provision eliminating the requirement that conservation land management plans be consistent with the purposes for which the lands were acquired. Instead, the bill requires only that the plans be compatible with “conservation, recreation, or both.” Using the broad categories of “conservation” and “recreation” grants DEP significant discretion and may lead to incompatible uses such as grazing, timbering, hunting, and off road vehicle trails.

Every Floridian who enjoys our state parks will have to stay vigilant for news of land management plan updates in their area and keep a sharp eye on proposals for inappropriate activities on conservation lands, particularly in our state parks. 
The legislation - HB 1075 by Rep. Caldwell and SB 1290 by Sen. Simpson - contained multiple controversial issues when it was filed. While Sierra Club Florida opposed the final version of the bill, it was far better when it passed than when it started.  The bill is particularly important because its policies will affect land held by the State of Florida including  3,146,040 acres of conservation land, 800,000 acres of which are state parks. 

The issues in the bill fell into four categories:

  • using Amendment 1 funds for construction of infrastructure,
  • surplusing lands,
  • exchanging state land in return for permanent conservation easements on privately-held contiguous land and on the state land with the potential loss of public access, and
  • changing the management of land from the current requirement that it be consistent with the purpose for which it was purchased to being compatible with conservation or recreational purposes.

Representatives of the environmental community met with the sponsors and staff and were able to arrive at mutually agreeable language on some issues.  The sponsors agreed to strike the section of the bill that would have allowed the use of Amendment 1 funds for “construction of treatment, transmission, or distribution facilities.” 

The sponsors also agreed to clarify that when land management plans are updated, only lands that might be suitable for surplusing would have to be identified as such instead of the original language that required lands be identified for consideration for surplusing in every plan update.  Finally, the section of the bill that would have required conservation land to be considered for surplusing if it had not met its short-term goals (2 years) was changed to bring the acquisition and restoration council (ARC) into the process to look at whether the goals were appropriate, whether the managing entity should be changed, or if surplusing should be considered.

The section of the bill dealing with the exchange of state land in return for permanent conservation easements on both the state land and contiguous private property also saw some improvements: the exchange had to result in a net-positive conservation benefit and the ARC was again brought into the process and required to make recommendations.  However, neither Sierra Club Florida nor the Conservancy for Southwest Florida were able to get an explicit requirement that the ARC recommendation include consideration of whether the exchange was a net-positive conservation benefit.  We were also unable to get state parks and preserves exempted from the land exchange section – a particular concern because of the potential loss of public access.