ELAPP members remain optimistic about land preservation in Hillsborough despite state cuts

07/21/11 Aaron Dalley
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On Monday, the board for Hillsborough County’s Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, met for the first time since the new Florida state budget took effect. In that budget, $305 million of environmental land acquisition money was eliminated. But ELAPP board members remain hopeful. Forest Turbiville, section manager for regional parks and conservation services in Hillsborough County, said the cuts are affecting partnering agencies more.

"The cutting of Florida Forever will impact us in terms of our ability to partner with the State, the water management district, Florida Communities Trust Program. In the past, we’ve partnered on many projects, in fact dozens of projects, with the state and we’ve been able to acquire up to 40, sometimes 60 percent funding for various ELAPP sites, which obviously stretches count dollars further."

ELAPP may be faring better than some of its partners because it relies primarily on the issuance of bonds, approved by Hillsborough County voters, for purchasing land. Turbiville said there is money left and they hope to make more acquisitions in the coming year.

"The acquisition money that we have left within the Hillsborough County ELAPP program for the very first bond issue is about $14 million. The initial bond issue was for, I believe, $56 million. So we’ve spent roughly $42 million in the last two years, since the issuance of bonds. We feel pretty good about the upcoming year. We think we’re going to have two or three good projects."

ELAPP was established in 1987 so Hillsborough could preserve land for conservation, recreation, and ecological restoration. In January, it purchased about 1,000 acres of scrub land in southern Hillsborough. Restoring native Florida habitats, like the scrub, is one of many ecological management programs occurring on ELAPP land. Marsh lands, mangroves, and seagrass communities are other protected habitats and efforts to control exotic plants and feral animals are also underway. Ross Dickerson, Hillsborough’s general manager of conservation services, said that, with a little financial housecleaning, restoration efforts are moving along.

"We’re actually very well off. I was able to cut $100,000 out of our budget but everything else was approved. Those were cuts that were needed cuts and they are not going to impact our management at all."

To date, ELAPP has purchased more than 60,000 acres, including the nearly 13,000 acre Cone Ranch in Northwest Hillsborough acquired last year. It’s their biggest single acquisition so far. Dickerson said that land should be ready for the public within the year.

"The management plan is almost completed. It will be done at the end of this month, hopefully and hopefully within the next 12 months we’re going to open the southern 1,600 acres for public access. That’s the most natural habitat on the site so we’re going to have trails, hiking trails that go through that piece of property."

Most of the lands purchased by ELAPP are managed by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department and are available to the public for recreation like hiking, canoeing and mountain biking.

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