Saving Florida's landscape
Posted April 16
SARASOTA, Fla. — Sitting in an open air chickee hut with expansive views of the pastures and pine forests on his ranch bordering Myakka River State Park, Jim Strickland points to a tree line in the distance to show where a golf course once was planned.
Before Strickland and a partner bought the 4,530-acre Blackbeard's Ranch, it was owned by a World War II Army general whose family began buying property in the area in the 1940s. When the general died, his heirs considered developing the land. There were informal plans for a golf course and housing, Strickland said.
Born in Bradenton, Strickland has spent his entire life ranching in the region, mostly on leased properties in Manatee County. Inevitably, they were sold to developers and Strickland moved his cows to another patch of leased land.
A few years ago, Strickland teamed with a wealthy investor and began buying agricultural land across the state. He wanted to make money, but in purchasing the Blackbeard's property he also hoped to preserve a part of Florida he'd watched disappear before his eyes.
It's a sentiment that many Floridians share, as evidenced by the fact that 75 percent of voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution in 2014 that requires state tax dollars be set aside for conservation.
Protecting properties such as Blackbeard's from being developed was one of the prime reasons for the amendment in the minds of those who pushed for it. But heading into the third year since Amendment 1 was approved, that's not how things have worked out.
The Florida House is moving forward with a budget for next year that sets aside no money for the state's marquee land conservation program, Florida Forever, or a separate program that ranchers such as Strickland have used to put conservation easements on their properties. The Florida Senate is proposing to fund Florida Forever at a tiny fraction of what the state once spent, and also has no money for the agriculture easements program.
The paltry budget proposals for land conservation are a continuation of a trend in recent years. State leaders have steadfastly refused to give Florida Forever— a program that once spent $300 million annually to buy conservation property — anywhere near the level of funding it once enjoyed, leading critics to declare that lawmakers are brazenly defying the will of voters.
Environmental groups have protested loudly to no avail.
Landowners have been less vocal. Many have been reluctant to align themselves too closely with environmental groups, who have tangled with agricultural interests over issues such as pollution and water use.
But during the last year, Strickland and some of his fellow ranchers have emerged as prominent advocates for land conservation in the state, putting a folksy face on the issue, and one that some environmental leaders hope will be more likely to curry sympathy with the conservative lawmakers who control the state budget.
Strickland and fellow rancher David "Lefty" Durando formed a new organization last year called the Florida Conservation Group. They have been aggressively lobbying state lawmakers to get serious about land conservation.
Whether men in cowboy hats and boots can succeed where environmental activists have failed in recent years remains to be seen. Their early efforts have not been fruitful.
But persistence and patience are hallmarks of those who make their living off the land, and Strickland says he's determined to ensure his property and others like it are protected forever.
"This has every single visual of what I know to be Florida," he said as a breeze rustled through the thatched roof of the chickee hut and sabal palms swayed in the distance.
In many ways, Strickland has the ideal background to advocate for landowners in Tallahassee.
Not only does he have six decades of ranching experience and come from a family that has been ranching in Florida since the Civil War, but he also is well versed in politics.
Strickland's father, Hiram Strickland, was a rancher who served as the Manatee County Property Appraiser for more than a decade. As a boy, Strickland remembers, he handed out campaign material for his dad in front of Publix.
Over the years, as Strickland grew his ranching business, he became more involved in industry groups. He was president of the Florida Cattleman's Association and chairman of the National Cattleman's Beef Association, a political action committee that helps elected officials who support the beef industry.
"I understand a little bit about politics," he said.
Promoting conservation issues is new for him, but it's also second nature for someone who grew up camping and canoeing throughout the region with the Boy Scouts and has spent his entire professional life outdoors.
The Florida Conservation Group was formed to advocate for conservation easement funding. Landowners sell their development rights to the state through an easement but maintain ownership of the property, allowing it to continue as an agricultural operation.
Such easements have been funded through Florida Forever and through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. The Florida Conservation Group has focused on obtaining funding for the Rural and Family Lands program, which received $35 million last year. There is no money in either the House or Senate budget for it this year.
Strickland sold an easement on ranch land bordering Lake Manatee to the Southwest Florida Water Management District 12 years ago. The experience made him more aware of the ecological value of certain properties.
The region's explosive growth also has elevated the importance of conservation issues. The metropolitan area from Bradenton to North Port was the 10th-fastest growing in the country last year, according to U.S. Census figures. Decades of population growth have had a big impact on the properties Strickland once leased for ranching.
"Nearly all of them have been developed," he said.
Strickland is quick to say he is not anti-development, but he also believes that some places need to be preserved.
"You can't save every one, but there are special places — and a lot of special places that need money," he said.
But conservation advocates face a range of obstacles this year, including a tight state budget, resistance from lawmakers who believe the state already has enough conservation land and a focus in the Senate on specific conservation projects rather than statewide programs such as Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands.
Land conservation used to have broad bipartisan consensus in Florida.
Former GOP Gov. Bob Martinez initiated the Preservation 2000 land buying program, the precursor to Florida Forever. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush fully funded Florida Forever at $300 million annually.
The state executed some major land deals under Bush, none bigger than the blockbuster purchase of Babcock Ranch in Charlotte and Lee counties in 2006 for $351.5 million.
Bush called the purchase of Babcock Ranch a "high point" of his time in office.
The deal grew in importance last month when it was announced that a female panther had given birth to panther cubs on the property. It was the first time in decades that a Florida panther — an endangered species and the official state animal — had been born north of the Caloosahatchee River.
Scientists believe that the panther's survival depends on the animal establishing a breeding population north of the river. Babcock Ranch is now the home base for that population. The fact that it's a state preserve could be critical to the animal's survival.
But Babcock is not large enough to support a new breeding population for panthers. The animal will need to expand to other areas north of the Caloosahatchee, such as the mass of state and local conservation lands around Myakka River State Park.
Expanding those protected areas to include Blackbeard's Ranch and other properties could be critical for the panther. The ranch also would provide a buffer to limit development around the park and protect water quality in the region.
Yet some lawmakers argue against more preservation.
"We have more than enough land that we can manage," GOP state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said recently when asked about the lack of funding for land conservation.
Trujillo added that he did not view Amendment 1 as a mandate to buy more land.
"I don't think Amendment 1 specifically said you must go and purchase lands," he said.
On the Senate side, land conservation advocates are running up against the problem of parochialism.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, comes from an area where the environment has been devastated by the release of nutrient rich water from Lake Okeechobee into the local estuary. Massive algae blooms have chocked the Indian River Lagoon, creating an environmental crisis.
Negron wants to target conservation spending to help his community by building a reservoir to hold polluted water. Environmental advocates support the effort, but they argue that it should not take away from conservation needs elsewhere.
"What you're seeing is certain elected officials from different regions are trying to carve out a portion of that funding specific to their projects or constituent base," said Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast President Christine Johnson.
Johnson said putting money into a program like Florida Forever ensures that conservation decisions are made based on science, not political clout. Florida Forever has a stringent ranking process that directs funding to projects that have the highest conservation value.
"It is the most effective use of taxpayer dollars," Johnson said. "Why are we going backwards?"
Johnson is working on a project to preserve a 543-acre marshland in the headwaters of the Myakka River in Manatee County. She has an agreement for a conservation easement on the property.
"We're ready to go," she said, adding: "We just need the funding."
During the Great Recession Strickland saw an opportunity to buy agricultural land cheaply. But Blackbeard's Ranch was special, something more than just an investment.
"I fell in love with this, I did," Strickland said.
Bumping along a gravel path on a Polaris all-terrain vehicle recently, Strickland talked about his connection to the ranch as the landscape transitioned between open pasture, pine forests and oak hammocks. He wore a tan cowboy hat, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He drove slowly, steering the Polaris through a stretch of pines that had been burned to restore their natural state and through a dense oak canopy where the path felt like a tunnel through the trees.
Strickland's father had a hunting camp nearby. He grew up in these woods.
When the property came up for sale and Strickland took a tour, he knew immediately what he wanted for the future of the ranch.
"That was the first thing that came to mind when I looked at this," he said. "This place needed to be preserved."
So Strickland bought the place and set about convincing the state to put it under permanent protection.
He believes a conservation easement is the perfect solution, allowing him to continue ranching on the half of the property that already has been converted to pasture. The other half that is still forested and touches Myakka River State Park would be restored to a pristine natural state, essentially creating an extension of the park.
"This property, if Jim didn't want to put this under protection we didn't know what the next ownership would do," said Julie Morris, an environmental consultant who has been working with Strickland and other landowners to get funding for conservation easements. "It's in an area that has a potential for high growth. This is one of the last large ownerships in the region. You don't see the 4,500-acre ranches anymore; they've been broken up."
About half a mile away from Blackbeard's Ranch sits a 1,146-acre residential development that has been dormant since the Great Recession. The underground utilities have been installed. The roads are paved. The property is just waiting for a new developer to come along and restart it.
"We're ground zero for development in Southwest Florida," Morris said. "We're under siege and we only have a few more years to protect these properties."