Restore state land funding now

By Steve Estes

In one of the most ecologically sensitive states in the country, where unspoiled wilderness, the attendant wildlife, and pristine waters are responsible for the near-constant uptick in tourists, cutting out programs to purchase sensitive lands and preserve them for future generations seems like bad business.

And that is what the state Legislature’s decisions the last couple of years on funding for land purchases is—bad business.

Florida boasts of some of the best waters in the country, both inland and coastal, for the enjoyment of fishing, diving, recreational boating, wildlife interaction, or just sight-seeing.

The state also boasts of some of the best expanses of ecologically unique and diverse lands anywhere. And part of the draw for those lands is accessibility to the public.

But for the last few years, Florida has steadily cut back on funding for the purchase of some of the most ecologically sensitive lands anywhere, leaving the private market to plan ways to develop those lands into some income-producing project.

The state gains sales tax revenue when fallow land gets put to a commercial use. The local governments gain property tax revenue when fallow land converts to a commercial or residential use. And both of those revenue streams translate directly into needed services for the residents of the state and the tourists who keep us all in the black.

That’s the positive business side of the equation.

But that positive also comes with a negative.

By not buying some of the very coastal and inland properties that make us so unique, the state is being very short-sighted. If those same waters and lands that draw visitors here remain in private hands and eventually transform into some residential or commercial use, which is nearly always the case, then public access will come at a price. And that might be a price our visitors soon tire of paying.

Even if the state buys the land and leases it to a for-profit venture, one of the caveats that generally follows the lease is that the land remains in public access. So everyone benefits and we still get sales tax generation, the primary source of revenue for the state.

But in the longer term, only through public ownership can we ensure that some of the very things that drew most of us here, and draws many of our visitors here, remain available in public access.

So we are concerned with the business view currently in vogue in Tallahassee that seems so dangerously short-sighted for the future of our state. While we tout huge tax breaks to commercial entities, and public subsidies to commercial enterprises, we ignore the history that made our state one of the top tourist draws in the world.

Maintaining a streamlined budget is important. Funding education is important. Maintaining a vibrant infrastructure is important. And maintaining a vibrant ecosystem is of equal importance.

We supposedly elected business people to strengthen our support base, upgrade our infrastructure, and make it attractive for people to continue coming here, and maybe even move their companies here.

But a concrete jungle, rather than a wild swamp, isn’t what our primary economic engine needs for fuel.

And unless we use some public money to preserve our heritage, and the heritage of our future generations, we will be unable to maintain our standing as a top tourist destination in the world.

We would urge our elected leadership to return all the funding to land purchase programs, and if possible, increase that funding.

The long term solution to our business model demands better than we have been getting.

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