Florida Conservation Group works to conserve the natural and agricultural lands most important for achieving Florida's wildlife and water conservation goals. There are various land protection programs in Florida including federal, state, and local. Please see below for information on some of the most important state and federal programs.
Department of Environmental Protection-Division of State Lands: Florida Forever
Florida Forever is the state land acquisition program and is run by the Division of State Lands (DSL). The program purchases properties with high conservation value, utilizing both fee-simple and less-than-fee acquisition strategies (conservation easements). DSL has a history of partnering with water management districts and county governments on conservation land acquisition.
The Florida Forever program has specific guidelines for acceptance including an application and vetting process that is a year to 18 months in duration. Once accepted into the program applications are ranked and placed into categories.
Florida Forever and its predecessor programs have been funded at $300 million annually since 1990; in 2008 this dropped dramatically with the economic recession. Florida Forever received 67 Million in FY 2020-21 for projects on the Florida Forever list. Increasing the annual funding for Florida Forever as close to the former funding level of $300 million a year is one of our highest priorities.
Florida Forest Service: Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP)
The RFLPP is an agricultural easement program run by the Florida Forest Service; it is designed to protect important agricultural lands through the acquisition of permanent land conservation easements. The purpose of the program is to protect working landscapes, and these easements are less restrictive than other programs, though they keep ranch and other agricultural lands from being developed into housing or other forms of land use that would destroy both agricultural uses and habitat. The program is very popular among landowners who would like to have flexibility with their agricultural operations.
The application process is 6 months in duration. Once accepted properties are placed into one of three ‘tiers’; properties in Tier 1 are the most likely to receive funding. RFLPP received 8.7 Million for FY 2020-21. RFLPP has a strong history of successfully leveraging their dollars with partnership funding from the NRCS ALE program and the Military’s REPI program for military base buffering. Strong funding of at least $50 million a year for RFLPP is essential to make sure the most important agricultural lands in Florida that are also important for wildlife and water conservation get protected instead of being developed.
The Forest Legacy Program aims to protect and conserve forests that are threatened by conversion to non-forest uses. The program is led by the Florida Forest Service, however, the U.S. Forest Service makes the final selections and distributes the funds. Florida may submit multiple projects, but the U.S. Forest Service Regional Office can submit no more than 3 projects from the state to the national office for consideration each year; the maximum funding is $10 million per year per state (maximum funding for one project is $7 million). The program may partner with other state and county government entities to leverage funding.
The Florida Forest Service places an emphasis on purchasing conservation easements, although past projects to date have been fee-simple. The Florida program focuses on conservation easements to ensure that forests in the state remain economically viable.
Florida’s Forest Legacy Area map identifies which portions of the state are eligible for protection under the Forest Legacy program. Please see this map for an idea of where there are current Forest Legacy Areas:www.FreshFromFlorida.com
NRCS: The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
The ACEP provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits. Under the Agricultural Land Easements component (ALE), NRCS helps Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land. Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component (WRE), NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands. NRCS easement programs are very popular in Florida and well-funded.
The Wetland Reserve Easement Program (WRE) is an easement program that purchases conservation easements on degraded or former wetlands in need of restoration. NRCS prioritizes wetlands that have been converted into other agricultural uses. NRCS will prioritize applications based on the easement’s potential for protecting and enhancing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. WRE’s can be more restrictive than other easements; NRCS has the right to restrict grazing rights for restoration purposes. NRCS has not restricted grazing rights in Florida as part of the WRE program, and they indicate it is highly unlikely they ever will, as cattle are an important management tool in Florida. Landowners also have the option to secure grazing rights on a WRE in perpetuity for a reduced rate. WRE prices are set by the Geographic Area Cap Rate (GARC); they are not subject to appraisal. WRE’s tend to have a higher dollar value than other easements, due to their restrictive nature. The WRE program is an essential part of efforts to restore watershed function in the Everglades and other watersheds to provide storm water retention and water purification that addresses current water quality issues including freshwater and red tide algal blooms.
In FY 2019 the WRE Program was allocated $13.5 Million
NRCS, Agricultural Conservation Land Easement Program: Agricultural Land Easements (ALE)
The ALE is a partnership program and is geared for working landscapes. NRCS provides financial assistance to eligible partners for purchasing Agricultural Land Easements that protect the agricultural use and conservation values of eligible land. Eligible partners include Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs. The ALE program will provide up to 50% match for working agricultural lands and 75% where there are grasslands of special significance. NRCS does not purchase these easements, rather they contribute to the partner that is acquiring the easement. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) under the Florida Forest Service has been successfully partnering with the NRCS ALE program, enabling them to leverage their dollars; Water Management Districts and County Land Conservation Programs are also pursuing funding partnerships with the ALE program. In FY 2019 the ALE program was allocated $5.6 Million.
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Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation Easements within the EHNWR boundary
FWS is currently acquiring property within the boundary of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Conservation Area. They have identified 100,000 acres as appropriate for less-than-fee acquisition and 50,000 acres for fee-simple acquisition. Approximately $30.29 Million has been appropriated to date.
FWS is working in partnership with other easement and acquisition programs to leverage these dollars.
Florida Water Management Districts have had very active land acquisition programs in the past, although funding has fallen in recent years. Water Management Districts have a long history of partnering with county governments and DEP in fee simple and less-than-fee acquisitions.