Florida Forever Land Acquisition Program

In 1999, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Forever Act that established the Florida Forever land acquisition and protection program. The Florida Forever program serves as the state’s blueprint for conservation of natural resources. The program recognizes that population growth in Florida and the alteration and development of natural and rural areas have contributed to the degradation of natural resources including wetlands, and the fragmentation and destruction of wildlife habitats and coastal open spaces. Through the Florida Forever program, the state is implementing effective land acquisition and preservation strategies supported by mapping tools and ecological data that help the state conduct scientific review and establish conservation priorities based upon climate change risks. Florida’s state legislature prioritized climate change considerations in the Florida Forever Act (Florida Stat. ch. 259.105(17)(d) (2018)) by requiring the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of State Lands to evaluate lands for acquisition based on their potential benefits to sequester carbon or adapt to climate change impacts, among other criteria.Since the inception of the Florida Forever program in July 2001, the state has purchased more than 818,616 acres of land, including 320,880 of functional wetlands. Florida Forever can serve as an example of how other governments and partners can incorporate climate change into land acquisition programs to enhance adaptation and natural resource conservation. 

Through the Florida Forever program, the state acquires land by purchasing fee simple titles or interests in land through conservation easements (i.e., less than fee) to protect environmentally significant lands. Environmentally significant lands include a wider range of goals than Florida Forever’s predecessor program, Preservation 2000 (P2000), including allowing acquisition of lands for water resource protection. On an annual basis, land acquisition projects are evaluated, selected, and ranked by the ten-member Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC). Acquisition lists and work plans prepared by DEP identify projects that are eligible for Florida Forever funding. Existing and newly approved projects are designated into one of six land or project categories:

  • Climate change lands: Lands where acquisition or other conservation measures will help address climate change impacts, such as to protect and help coastal lands and resources adapt to sea-level rise and increased flooding.
  • Critical historical resources: Projects found to have significant archaeological or historical value.  
  • Critical natural lands: Lands that include functional landscape-scale natural systems, large, intact hydrological systems, significant imperiled natural communities, and corridors linking large landscapes, as identified and developed by the best available scientific analysis.
  • Less-than-fee: Lands that can support both working agriculture and compatible resource conservation protection purposes through the use of acquisition tools like conservation easements and life estates and financial tools like tax incentives. 
  • Partnerships and regional incentives: Projects where the cost of acquiring or maintaining land will be reduced for the state including through local and regional cost-share agreements or that the state receives land at a reduced price or through alternative or matching funds. 
  • Substantially completed projects: Projects that will acquire additions to or linkages between preserved areas and where 85 percent of the project is already completed.  

Within each category, projects are ranked from high to low priority, and these rankings contribute to which projects will be negotiated for, funded, and purchased by the state. Project selection is supported by Florida Natural Area Inventory, a planning tool that includes data layers and maps produced by the state to rank parcels (which are often large-scale or undeveloped tracts with significant natural attributes as compared to already developed parcels) based on scientific review and the program’s conservation priorities.

Once project decisions are made by ARC, the state’s governor and executive cabinet must approve each land acquisition decision. Approved projects are acquired (almost exclusively through voluntary sale) by Florida DEP Division of State Lands on behalf of the People of Florida. Funding is appropriated by the state legislature to Florida DEP. Florida Forever is also supported by partnerships with the federal and local governments, local and national land trusts, and water management districts. All lands acquired are held in trust for the residents of Florida, which ensures the long-term conservation of the state’s natural and cultural heritage. In addition, the statute allows parcels that are acquired to be leased back to the original property owners for agricultural uses that are compatible with conservation so long as certain management requirements are met (Florida Forever Act, Florida Stat. ch. 259.032(7)(d) (2018)). Flexible open space acquisition models like the Florida Forever program can facilitate increased participation from property owners who can continue using land owned by the state, while using the lease to condition the use of the land to achieve conservation purposes.

 

Related Organizations:

  • State of Florida Department of Transportation

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