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At last, Florida has a program worth keeping

November 10, 1991

Occasionally we find intelligent signs of life in Florida government. Occasionally something actually works.

One quiet success story is Preservation 2000, an ambitious program designed to buy up endangered lands and save them from development. The first purchase occurred in Sarasota County914 acres once marked for residential housing would instead be annexed to a state park. Since then, more than $90 million has been spent on river basins and marshes, from the Withlacoochee to the edge of the Everglades.

"It's the only happy story in Florida," says Eric Draper of the Nature Conservancy, which compiled a list of top-priority purchases for the state.

The largest land acquisition program in the nation, Preservation 2000 owes its existence to former Gov. Bob Martinez. Searching for a constituency among environmentalists, Martinez had proposed P2000 as a way to preserve sensitive lands, while ensuring that property owners were fairly compensated.

The concept got support from respected conservation groups, so the Legislature went along. "They didn't realize what a good thing they'd created," Draper says.

Currently, money for the land purchases comes from revenue bonds sold by the state, grossing $300 million a year. Half goes toward the Conservation and Recreation Lands (carl) plan, and another 30 percent bankrolls the Save Our Rivers program. The rest goes for parks and forestry.

Working with local agencies, water districts and private philanthropists, P2000 has helped secure vital tracts along the Steinhatchee River, the Green Swamp Basin in Pasco County, and the Corkscrew Swamp. By contributing money for cleanup projects, P2000 played a role in settling the big federal lawsuit over agricultural pollution of the Everglades.

A list of areas targeted for future purchase stretches from the hammocks of North Key Largo to the pinelands of the Big Bend. Several counties have launched their own acquisition programs with bond issues approved by the public. The votes left no doubt that most Floridians will pay to protect threatened green space.

The best part of P2000 is that its bite is barely felt by taxpayersat least for now. Unfortunately, lawmakers approved a 10-year spending project without a 10-year funding plan.

Consequently, in this season's budgetary panic, Preservation 2000 could be jeopardizedand with it, hundreds of thousands of acres of irreplaceable wilderness.

With any bond project, someone's got to pay the annual debtabout $26 million on each issue of P2000 bonds. In 1990, lawmakers got the money by raising documentary stamp taxes on liens and stocks. This year the debt service will be covered by a small hike in documentary stamps on real estate.

But what about next year? And the year after that? Each new P2000 bond carries a debt that the state must pay. For this reason, Gov. Chiles and some legislators are uneasy about issuing new bonds; rather, they want P2000 to have a dedicated source of funding.

Given the fiscal crisis in schools and prisons, it's unlikely lawmakers will simply appropriate $300 million for land acquisition. The money must come from a fresh well.

Some say bonds are still a good deal because interest rates are low, and raw land will never be cheaper. Whatever course is taken, any snag in the P2000 program would be bad news for conservation. Every lost day is costly, as illustrated by recent events near Apalachicola.

There the state had its eye on a vast stretch of swamp and pine groves called Tate's Hell. At 183,000 acres, it would have been the largest parcel ever saved from bulldozers.

But a developer with $22 million got there first. Last month the deal was signed, and soon Tate's Hell will have houses, "plantations" and a logging operation.

At least they won't have to change the name.

Politicians waking up to the green vote November 5, 1990 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Proposal gives green power to the people March 14, 1993