TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet on Monday quickly approved $141 million in agreements that will help preserve lands in southwest Florida’s Panhandle.
In a phone meeting, DeSantis and Cabinet members supported three land purchases under the Florida Forever program. They also approved the purchase of three conservation easements, which help preserve the land while allowing landowners to continue using it for purposes such as farming and hunting.
They approved spending $26.65 million for a conservation easement on 8,881 acres owned by Adams Ranch along the south shore of Lake Marian in Osceola County.
Money for the deal would come from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural and Homeland Land Protection Program. Adams Ranch is a cattle operation headquartered in Fort Pierce.
An additional $10.1 million from the Rural and Homestead Lands Program will be dedicated to a conservation easement on 4,490 acres of the Buck Island Ranch in Highlands County.
In a press release after the meeting, Simpson called the Adams Ranch and Buck Island agreements “historic” as the 22-year-old Rural and Homestead Land Conservation Program nears completion. a total of nearly 100,000 acres across 69 easements.
The release said the program allows “agricultural operations to continue to contribute to Florida’s economy and the production of food, timber and other resources essential to Florida’s prosperity.”
The program sparked some controversy this year when DeSantis vetoed $100 million set aside for it in the new state budget. The program received $300 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
A separate conservation easement agreement involves spending $8.25 million to maintain 4,808 acres north of Tallahassee. The agreement with Gem Land Co. would, in part, allow the construction of eight single-family homes on the property, as well as outbuildings and driveways.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton said after the meeting that it is standard practice for conservation easements to include “certain allowances” that include structures and homes.
“All of this is fully considered in the evaluation process from the beginning,” Hamilton said. “So as those considerations arise, they are negotiated, they are activated and then they can move forward in accordance with this agreement.”
Monday’s meeting of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and state Finance Director Jimmy Patronis lasted less than 10 minutes.
The most expensive deal involves spending $77.6 million in Florida Forever money to purchase 17,229 acres from Alico, Inc. in Hendry County in what is known as the Devil’s Garden Florida project Forever. While Alico is a huge citrus producer, the targeted land is primarily used for livestock grazing, according to a staff analysis of the proposal.
The overall Devil’s Garden project includes 82,995 acres in Hendry and Collier counties, with staff analysis indicating, in part, that the Big Cypress National Preserve relies on water supplied from the region. Nearly 52,000 acres have already been acquired or are subject to purchase contracts.
The other Florida Forever projects approved Monday call for spending $5.4 million to acquire 1,546 acres between Blackwater River State Forest and Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County and $13.4 million on 5,454 acres involving the Natural Bridge Timberlands project along the border of Leon and Jefferson Counties.
The site southeast of Tallahassee borders the historic Natural Bridge Battlefield State Park and protects the St. Marks River and natural springs in the area.