Does Florida's Land Acquisition Trust Fund really require land acquisition?

Wacissa River, Florida.  Photo: FWC

Wacissa River, Florida.  Photo: FWC

Last November 75% of Florida voters supported Constitutional Amendment 1, the Florida Land and Water Conservation Initiative.  The amendment was designed to ensure that at least one-third of existing documentary excise tax revenues would be allocated to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.  The Fund, in turn, would be used to promote conservation and natural resources, primarily through the acquisition of lands for conservation.

Before the Florida legislature abruptly adjourned last month before adopting a budget, supporters of Amendment 1 were outraged by the way in which lawmakers proposed spending Amendment 1's $750 million conservation funding.  Budgets in both the House and Senate propose spending conservation funding on existing operational costs.  The House budget proposal includes funds for staff salaries and firefighting equipment, while the Senate budget funds new patrol vehicles and fish farming regulations.  Supporters of the amendment claim those expenses aren't permitted:

"I don't think the words 'Land Acquisition Trust Fund' could be any more clear," said Will Abberger, chairman of Florida's Water and Land Legacy, the committee that sponsored the amendment. "It's not the 'land management trust fund.' It's not the 'existing agencies operations trust fund.' It's the Land Acquisition Trust Fund."

The sponsor committee claims that out of the $750 million available, only $8-10 million is reserved for the acquisition of land for parks and wildlife areas.  The Speaker of the House believes that is enough to satisfy Amendment 1's objectives:

"We should make sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation lands we already own. We believe land should be purchased for strategic reasons, such as wildlife corridors and connecting existing state lands."

Unfortunately for the sponsoring committee, there is some ambiguity in the actual language of the amendment.  It sets aside funding "to finance or refinance" several broad categories of conservation work, including the acquisition and improvement of land; wildlife management areas; lands that protect water resources and drinking water sources; lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area; beaches and shores; outdoor recreation lands, including recreational trails, parks, and urban open space; and rural landscapes, working farms, and ranches.

The broad nature of the amendment leaves ample room to interpret existing operational costs as viable uses of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.  That operational spending would seem to violate the spirit of the amendment may have little bearing: even the ballot summary statement was clear that "management" of conservation lands would be fair game.

While lobbying continues before a special session is convened in June to finalize the budget, amendment supporters might consider focusing the debate on outcomes, not inputs.  Land acquisition might not by itself promote conservation, just as operational spending is not per se  unproductive.  An effective conservation framework in Florida requires lands that are thoughtfully managed to advance conservation goals.  So instead of bemoaning operational expenditures, it might behoove amendment supporters to ask for more detail instead:  

  • Will staff salary allocations make new hires in areas where expertise is lacking or merely cover the existing bureaucracy?  
  • What kind of "technology and information services" will be provided to the Department of Environmental Protection?  
  • Will firefighting equipment purchased by the fund prioritize the protection of conservation areas?  
  • Given that sea level rise presents a monumental challenge to coastal communities, will the fund be used to finance climate change adaptation measures Florida's cities are begging for from the state?

If lawmakers can't be forthcoming about proposed allocations, then amendment supporters are right to be skeptical.  Conservation isn't all about acquiring land, but if funds are being channeled toward operations and management instead, it's fair to ask how improved institutional capacities will produce the conservation outcomes that are at the heart of Amendment 1.  

Lake Runnymede Conservation Area.  Photo: Andrew T. Sullivan

Lake Runnymede Conservation Area.  Photo: Andrew T. Sullivan