Florida Cabinet buys land for potential wildlife corridor – Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved $17.8 million in land-conservation deals that include protecting two properties for a envisioned multibillion-dollar wildlife corridor that stretches from the Keys to the Panhandle.

With growing support for the corridor, which is expected to take decades to complete, DeSantis and the cabinet approved two conservation easements in Osceola and Marion counties tied to the plan. Conservation easements protect property from development but allow activities such as ranching to continue.

The state will spend $1.89 million to keep the 287-acre Collins Ranch in Osceola County from future development and $3 million for a similar deal involving 135 acres along the Rainbow River in Marion County. Drilling operations will continue on both.

The deals will help implement the 2021 Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which calls for pumping $300 million a year into an effort to connect 18 million acres of land.

About 8 million of those acres should be protected, with a goal of 900,000 acres added by the end of this decade.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation Chief Executive Officer Mallory Dimmitt said “consistent funding” is key to the corridor’s success.

“Although much of the land in the corridor has been protected, these critical connections remain, and maintaining them is becoming more expensive every day,” Dimmitt told the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee before the cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Subcommittee Chairman Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, estimated the corridor could require $5 billion to $6 billion to complete, and lawmakers will need to overhaul regulations to speed acquisitions.

“That will be a big challenge for us, increasing the revenue, enough to make it fast. We are here in the two-minute exercise,” said Altman. “And then create a legal structure. … We also need a lot of help from the private sector, from lobbyists, from lawyers, from law firms and from landowners.”

An assessment of Florida’s conservation lands released January 6 by the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research said $33.37 million had been spent as of December 30 out of the $300 million allocated in the fiscal year 2021-2022. The money came from federal stimulus dollars.

DeSantis and the cabinet – Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson – also approved a purchase Tuesday of land considered bordering the potential path of the corridor.

That property involves 2,529 acres of ranch land in northwest Okeechobee County that abuts land in the corridor, Dimmitt said. With a price tag of $8.22 million, of which $2.95 million would be covered by the US Air Force, the land is part of a buffer around the Avon Park Air Force Range.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has touted the planned wildlife corridor and said she would like to see bike and walking trails winding through farming communities and wildlife areas from Naples to Orlando.

While Passidomo has projected that the work will take several decades to complete, she described the corridor as “our Central Park.”

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