BY LESLEY BLACKNER
Thank you, Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower, for attending the first annual Florida Wildlife Corridor Summit. Two takeaways everyone needs to know:
First, the Florida Wildlife Corridor is a network of lands and waters running throughout the entire state that must be saved ASAP if Florida’s unique biodiversity is to survive.
The Florida Legislature unanimously recognized the corridor in 2021, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law. Much of Florida’s drinking water is sourced from the corridor. Most of Florida’s many endangered species call the corridor home.
But time is running out to save the corridor. Florida’s century-old real estate insanity shows no signs of slowing. And too many local elected officials view their job as simply rubber-stamping development applications. (Jeff Brower is the exception that proves the rule.)
More than one speaker at the summit made the scary point that there is only a decade to save the most endangered lands — the bulldozers get closer every day.
Second, Jeff Brower was the only county commissioner from any of Florida’s 67 counties to show up at the summit. Chair Brower reiterated his commitment and determination to permanently protect the critical Volusia links in the corridor.
I was amazed and thrilled to hear the passion and commitment of incoming Florida House Speaker Paul Renner to the corridor’s permanent protection. He spoke about his newborn son. No doubt Speaker-designate Renner wants his son to have somewhere to go other than a new multiuse complex in decades to come.
I was inspired by Arnie Bellini, a Tampa tech entrepreneur who is deploying his fortune to make the permanent protection of the Wildlife Corridor a reality.
The summit gathered many dedicated scientists, government officials (state and federal), NGOs, artists and regular Floridians who really care and acknowledge one stark reality: We are either at a tipping point or a turning point for saving what remains of natural Florida. The next decade is make or break for the Wildlife Corridor.
Saving the Florida Wildlife Corridor in perpetuity won’t be easy. The state law that recognizes and authorizes funding encourages the fee acquisition of private lands. This means buying land outright. That’s great … and expensive.
The new law also encourages the placement of conservation easements upon corridor lands. It sounds good — right? But as with everything related to land use in the Sunshine State, there’s a secret loophole to let developers have their way.
Florida Statute 704.06 governs conservation easements. It talks a good game about “retaining land or water areas predominantly in their natural, scenic, open, agricultural, or wooded condition; retaining such areas as suitable habitat for fish, plants or wildlife.” And such conservation easements shall be “perpetual” — which means forever, at least in the dictionary.
But then comes the sneaky part:
“A conservation easement may be released by the holder of the easement to the holder of the fee even though the holder of the fee may not be a governmental body or a charitable corporation or trust.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Conservation easements can be very easily removed. Our state agencies do this all the time. For example, the St. Johns River Water Management District routinely releases conservation easements.
Apparently, Florida conservation easements are only good until a development deal comes along.
This giant loophole in Statute 704.06 must be closed to make the Florida Wildlife Corridor safe “in perpetuity.” But that should not be an insurmountable problem.
Please learn more about the Wildlife Corridor and spread the word. The Volusia County Wildlife Corridor already has its own website and Facebook page.
The goal of every Floridian must be to do something, do what you can to make sure the corridor is saved.
For starters, demand every elected official and candidate support the corridor’s implementation — with deeds, not merely words. We must turn this tragic tipping point into a turning point for a future worth having.
— Blackner, an environmental attorney, lives in Tallahassee.