TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Tallahassee Democrat) -- Environmental groups are balking at parts of a new list of state-owned park and forest land targeted for sale in order to buy other property deemed of greater conservation value.
The initial list, prepared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and presented to the public this week, includes 169 proposed surplus sites totaling 5,331 acres in 67 state parks, forests and wildlife areas. DEP officials say the land being considered for sale is less than 0.2 percent of the 3 million acres held by the state through its Board of Trustees.
The Legislature this year agreed to spend $70 million on conservation land purchases, but required that $50 million of that come from the sale of other state lands. Lawmakers ordered DEP's Division of State Lands to conduct an assessment by Sept. 1 to identify land no longer needed for conservation. Any new purchases must be from the Florida Forever property list, with priority given to parcels that buffer military bases, protect springs and water resources or involve conservation easements and partnerships with other groups to split land costs.
Most of the sites on the sell-off list are small tracts, often less than 5 acres, and many, environmental advocates say, appear to make sense as surplus land. But several sites on the list are of serious concern - particularly inclusion of large tracts in central Florida in a key aquifer recharge area and near Wekiwa Springs.
"It's just idiocy," said Charles Lee, Audubon Florida's director of advocacy. "It's almost like they are throwing things against the wall and seeing how much sticks."
The first public meeting on the list was held Wednesday evening. Those who turned out also cautioned against burdening taxpayers by selling beach-front property on the high-hazard barrier island Cayo Costa off the coast of Fort Myers.
"We are going to be paying for them to rebuild their houses," said Preston Robertson of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Others also opposed the sale of small tracts in bio-diverse Torreya State Park in Liberty County and shedding the 79-acre Porter Pond Tract in Washington County, which includes a freshwater sand-bottom lake and is an important area for Panama City's water supply.
"A lot of (the list) makes sense," said Wendy Mathews, The Nature Conservancy's conservation projects manager. "But if water resources are an issue, a lot of things are in high-impact water resource areas."
Marianne Gengenbach, acting director of DEP's Office of Environmental Services, stressed at Wednesday's meeting the list is far from final.
"We are still working on this, this is not a final review, we are not done," she said. "These parcels are a long way away from being sold."
In addition to the Wednesday meeting and webinars Thursday and 11 a.m. today, the Acquisition and Restoration Council will discuss the issue Sept. 13. Regional meetings also will be held before the list goes before the Florida Cabinet, which sits as the Board of Trustees. After that, any individual land sale would have to go through the required public process.
Gengenbach urged members of the public to take advantage of the opportunity to weigh in.
Greg Knecht, The Nature Conservancy's director of protection, said selling surplus conservation land is "a very touchy subject," because any land bought with taxpayer money is "near and dear to someone."
"If you don't approach this in a very open, transparent and collaborative way, it just becomes more difficult," he said.
In this case, however, meetings were held behind closed doors in July to develop the evaluation criteria and the list of the proposed surplus sites was not released until the day before Wednesday's meeting. Maps showing exactly where the property was located were not available to the public until the day of the meeting.
"This whole thing has been extremely rushed," said The Nature Conservancy's Mathews.
Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said he didn't like the process, but conceded, "It's probably the best we are going to get."
Draper and others said while there is some surplus land inadvertently purchased over the last 25 years, there is not $50 million-worth.
"The $50 million should be considered a cap or limit of what can be sold, not a goal. We don't want to sell something with ecological value then turn around and buy something with ecological value," he said. "There has got to be a lot of balance in this."
Lee said with the right approach the state could "end up trading trash for gems," but he warned Division of State Lands officials that some of the proposed surplus sites should be struck from the list.
One such proposal, he said, includes more than 2,500 acres in the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area just northeast of Orlando, within Green Swamp, a critical area for aquifer recharge with abundant wildlife. The state has been acquiring land in the sensitive area since the 1970s, Lee said. Less than 10 years ago the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the wildlife area, recommended 12,500 acres be added to the area and none be declared surplus. This time, FWC and other state agencies, including the Florida Park Service and Forest Service, signed off on the surplus list for lands they manage.
"To see that tract now for surplus is hard to understand," Lee said.
The recommendation to sell about 400 acres land in Wekiwa Springs State Park also appears to be a reversal of course, said Lee and others. The past intent was to purchase more land in the area to protect the spring recharge area and create a wildlife corridor between the state park and forest land to the north. In 2004, former Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the Wekiwa Parkway and Protection Act, intended to protect environmentally sensitive land while meeting Orlando's transportation demands.
"The idea was to fill in the blanks. This is the opposite of that. It is creating more blanks," Lee said. "It doesn't even compute."
DEP's Gengenbach said in the scheme of things, the sites flagged for surplus are "remarkably modest" and pledged further review.
"Together," she told the meeting audience, "we can get through this process."