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Hands off lands funds, Bush says

The Senate wants to take $100-million from the environmental land fund to free up money for other state projects.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


The Senate wants to take $100-million from the environmental land fund to free up money for other state projects.

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush and four Cabinet members blasted a move by Senate leaders Thursday to raid the state's fund for buying environmentally sensitive land so they can pay for other state needs.

State environmental officials say the move trips up efforts to buy up sensitive land for projects such as creating a 23-acre nature trail in Tampa, turning a Clearwater mobile home park back into a wetland and adding land to the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Bush warned that the raid also will endanger the state's partnership with Congress to restore the Everglades.

The governor said he has tried to persuade lawmakers to drop their plan, so far without success. Senators contend that a lean budget year is forcing them to sacrifice the environmental fund to more pressing needs, such as health and eduction.

"There's ample resources to do this the right way," Bush contended.

Bush announced his concerns as the Cabinet voted to spend some of the land-preservation money to add 13 acres in Citrus County to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

His comments were echoed by fellow Republicans Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, Treasurer Tom Gallagher and Comptroller Bob Milligan, and by the Cabinet's lone Democrat, Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

Senators were not swayed. They want to take all $100-million remaining in the Preservation 2000 trust fund -- money that would have been used to protect habitat for Florida panthers, Key deer, scrub jays and black bears -- and redirect it to Everglades restoration.

Bush would rather use the state's general tax revenue to pay for fixing the River of Grass. But the senators say that taking the money out of P2000 instead frees up $100-million in general revenue that can then be redirected to other needs.

"We do not hurt a single environmental project by doing this," insisted state Sen. Ron Silver, D-Miami, who initiated the move. "They want to make believe the sky is falling and the end is near. That's just a typical bureaucratic response."

House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, said that despite the governor's objections he might go along with the Senate. Given how tight money is this year, Feeney said, "the environmental community might have to give a little bit because everybody else is."

However, the state's top environmental official said the move plays havoc with Everglades restoration plans because of legal restrictions on how P2000 money can be spent.

The bonds the state sold to finance P2000 specify that the money can be used only for buying land, said state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs.

But the state has promised Congress that it will help pay all the expenses of Everglades restoration, including engineering and design work crucial to getting the $8-billion project off the ground. By making P2000 foot the bill for the Everglades, he said, the state can no longer pay its share of that part of the project, endangering partnership agreements the state negotiated with federal officials.

When Bush unveiled his plan for paying for restoring the River of Grass in January 2000, he dismissed as groundless the fear that someday lawmakers might raid the fund. A little more than a year later, though, that is exactly what state senators have proposed.

That's why, says U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., both the state and Congress "need to come up with as permanent a source of financing as we can (for the Everglades) so we don't have these annual battles like the one that's going on now in Tallahassee."

Over the past decade, the state has used the P2000 program to protect more than 1-million acres of pristine springs, swamps, forests, beaches and scrub from development. About six to nine months from now the program will wind down, say state officials, to be replaced by a slightly different land-buying program the Legislature approved last year called Florida Forever.

Only $100-million remains of the P2000 money, raised by selling bonds paid off with the documentary-stamp tax. By taking the money away, predicted Nature Conservancy state director Bob Bendick, "there is land that won't be bought, land that will disappear under pavement because of this."

- Times staff writers Julie Hauserman and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this story.

Tampa Bay projects

Among the 91 remaining Preservation 2000 projects that state environmental officials say would be endangered by a Senate raid are four projects of interest to Tampa Bay area residents:

Kapok Wetland & Floodplain, Clearwater, 37 acres. Money would help city buy up the Friendly Village of Kapok mobile home park that was built in the 1960s on top of the Alligator Creek floodplain, relocate residents and restore wetland.

South Tampa Greenway, Tampa, 23 acres: Money would help city create a seamless recreational trail linking Picnic Island with the Friendship Trail Bridge.

Annutteliga Hammock, Hernando and Citrus counties, 196 acres: Money would help preserve some of the last large tracts of longleaf pine sandhills in Florida, protecting habitat for black bear.

Withlacoochee State Forest, Hernando and Sumter counties, 93 acres: Money would help buy out remaining private landholders, aiding in management of the forest and protecting wetlands.

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