In recent years conservation funding in Florida has been cut by 97.5%. A coalition of volunteers has been busy collecting signatures across the state, in an attempt to get that funding back. The citizens and environmental groups behind this petition drive will need about a million signatures if the measure - known as Florida’s Water and Land Legacy amendment - is to make it to the 2014 ballot.
Vince Lamb is involved with Brevard County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. He monitors populations of the *threatened Florida scrub jay at Cruickshank Sanctuary, in Rockledge. He says Cruickshank is one of Brevard County's conservation success stories.
“When they first started managing the property there were really, no scrub jays living here … We now have more than 30 here; something like 7 or 8 families of scrub jays,” says Lamb.
More than half the county’s protected lands were bought with matching funds from Florida Forever. The state’s conservation program was launched by Governor Bob Martinez in 1990. It shared bipartisan support for years, yet current Governor, Rick Scott, has called the program “special interest spending”, disabling it with deep budget cuts (line # 1578 A).
At a time when land prices are low, there are still a couple million acres on Florida Forever’s statewide priority list. Many on the list are scrublands like Cruickshank Sanctuary. These areas can be especially vulnerable to development because they are high and dry; perfect for building on. Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment could shore up funding before development resurges, so volunteers are trying to gather as much public support as possible for the measure.
Jason Brady, Central FL field organizer for the campaign, tells volunteers at an Orlando campaign kick-off meeting that since this is a grassroots effort, it’s going to take a lot of work from them. That’s because they'll be doing almost all the petition gathering, so speed is crucial.
He says the first question people are always going to ask is: Where does the money come from?
“It’s a good, logical question to have,” Brady adds.
An existing tax in Florida, called a documentary stamp tax, is levied on documents that transfer property interest. This tax revenue was being used for several years to fund preservation program Florida Forever, but is now being diverted to the state’s general revenue.
“So the idea is that it’s not a new tax,” says Brady. “That always comes up.”
Steven Carrion is collecting signatures at Winter Park Farmer’s Market. Carrion is a UCF student, double majoring in biology and environmental studies. He learned about the campaign at a summer assembly and brought a field organizer over to UCF to train him and a group of other students on petition gathering.
Carrion encounters a man who doesn’t want to give his name, but says we already pay too many taxes.
Carrion explains the measure is not a new tax, adding, “It would still need 60% of the vote, so this just gets it on the ballot.”
The man replies by telling Carrion, "We need less government. Period." Carrion thanks him for his time and moves on.
If the campaign can get enough signatures to get the measure on the 2014 ballot, phase two will take effect: educating the public before they head to the polls to vote.
“It’s gonna take an awfully good communication program beyond getting signatures, to let people know why this is important,” says Vince Lamb.
He explains that part of the effort is getting people outdoors to appreciate what could be lost without funding. Lamb believes once people in the Northeast can sell their houses, rapid growth will resume in Florida.
“That’s why it’s important to preserve more of our beautiful natural areas. That’s the only way that the kids of today and their children are going to have the same experiences that we did growing up, of seeing wild Florida ... Florida as the beautiful place that it can be naturally.”
*Florida scrub jays are listed as threatened by USFWS - not endangered as the post originally stated. There are less than 6000 individuals remaining in the wild and decline is predicted to continue.