DeSantis and Florida Cabinet eye 12,000+ acres land conservation deals

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet next week will consider a series of proposed land deals that include preserving more than 12,000 acres in Northwest Florida and keeping three ranches from future development.

During a meeting Tuesday, DeSantis and the Cabinet will decide whether to spend $18.09 million to buy 12,439 acres in Liberty County. The land, which would be purchased from Tupelo AG LLC through the Florida Forever conservation program, includes species such as gopher tortoises, Apalachicola alligator snapping turtles and eastern indigo and Florida pine snakes, according to an agenda for the meeting.

If the deal is completed, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would manage the land for outdoor recreation and educational opportunities.

Other proposals going before DeSantis and the Cabinet include purchasing conservation easements, which generally involve the state buying development rights but allowing landowners to continue activities such as farming or ranching.

The largest conservation-easement proposal involves 2,529 acres of ranch land in northwest Okeechobee County. The proposed purchase has an $8.22 million price tag, of which $2.95 million would be covered by the U.S. Air Force, as the land is part of a buffer around the Avon Park Air Force Range.

The land, currently used for 70 head of cattle, also borders the Kissimmee Bend State Forest and the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.

In addition, DeSantis and the Cabinet will look at spending $1.89 million to keep the 287-acre Collins Ranch in Osceola County from future development.

A meeting agenda said acquiring the land would eliminate “the threat of encroaching residential development and protect the wildlife that requires extensive natural areas such as the sandhill crane, wood stork, crested caracara, and the federally endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow.”

Another proposed conservation easement, at a cost of $3 million, would add 135 acres to 307 acres already acquired or pending a sale as part of what is known as the Rainbow River Corridor in Marion County. The land consists of “most of the undeveloped or minimally developed private land remaining along the Rainbow River,” according to the meeting agenda.

Other deals that will be considered Tuesday include spending $2.695 million for 8.68 acres within the Charlotte Harbor Estuary in Charlotte County and $1.965 million for 565 acres within the Tiger Island area in Nassau County.

State environmental staff members have recommended approval of all six proposals. Tuesday’s meeting will be the first time newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson will join DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis for a Cabinet session.

The deals were in the works before DeSantis on Tuesday rolled out a series of environmental goals for his second term, topped by Everglades and Indian River Lagoon restoration efforts.

DeSantis proposed a four-year $3.5 billion plan that included funding for the Florida Forever program and continued support for the Resilient Florida program, which is designed to help protect communities from sea-level rise and other effects of climate change. He also called for speeding up work on a wildlife corridor project and protecting coral reefs.

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