Cabinet backs $141 million in land conservation deals including a Florida Forever project in Hendry County

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By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet on Monday quickly approved $141 million in deals that will help preserve land from the Panhandle to Southwest Florida.

During a meeting held by telephone, DeSantis and Cabinet members supported three land purchases under the Florida Forever program. They also approved buying three conservation easements, which help preserve land while allowing owners to continue using it for such things as agriculture and hunting.

One of the conservation-easement deals involves spending $8.25 million to maintain 4,808 acres north of Tallahassee. The deal with Gem Land Co., in part, would allow the construction of eight single-family homes on the property, along with outbuildings and driveways.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton said after the meeting that it is a standard practice for conservation easements to include “certain allowances” that include structures and homes.

“All that’s fully factored in the appraisal process on the front end,” Hamilton said. “So, as those considerations come about, they’re negotiated, they’re activated and then they’re able to move forward pursuant to that agreement.”

Monday’s meeting of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis lasted less than 10 minutes.

The most expensive deal involves spending $77.6 million in Florida Forever money to buy 17,229 acres from Alico, Inc. in Hendry County as part of what is known as the Devil’s Garden Florida Forever project. While Alico is a huge citrus grower, the targeted land is used primarily for cattle grazing, according to a staff analysis of the proposal.

The overall Devil’s Garden project includes 82,995 acres in Hendry and Collier counties, with the staff analysis saying, in part, that the Big Cypress National Preserve depends on water supplied from the area. Nearly 52,000 acres have already been acquired or are under purchase agreements.

DeSantis and the Cabinet also approved spending $26.65 million on a conservation easement on 8,881 acres owned by Adams Ranch along the south shore of Lake Marian in Osceola County.

Money for the deal would come through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. Adams Ranch is a cattle operation headquartered in Fort Pierce.

Another $10.1 million from the Rural and Family Lands program will be spent on a conservation easement on 4,490 acres of the Buck Island Ranch in Highlands County.

In a news release after the meeting, Simpson called the Adams Ranch and Buck Island deals “historic” as the 22-year-old Rural and Family Lands conservation program approaches a total of nearly 100,000 acres through 69 easements.

The release said the program allows “agriculture operations to continue to contribute to Florida’s economy and the production of food, timber, and other resources vital to the prosperity of Florida.”

The program stirred some controversy this year when DeSantis vetoed $100 million that had been set aside for it in the new state budget. The program received $300 million in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

The other Florida Forever projects approved Monday call for spending $5.4 million to acquire 1,546 acres between Blackwater River State Forest and the Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County and $13.4 million on 5,454 acres involving the Natural Bridge Timberlands project along the border of Leon and Jefferson counties.

The site southeast of Tallahassee borders the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park and protects the St. Marks River and area’s natural springs.

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