Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nature Conservancy report pegs value of land-buying

By Bruce Ritchie

With the state's land-buying program having dodged a bullet in January, The Nature Conservancy today released a report saying that the program plays a vital role in the state's economy.

Florida has conserved more than 500,000 acres since 2000 under the Florida Forever program, which receives $300 million annually. But the program was sharply cut in January when the Legislature met in special session to address a revenue deficit caused by the economic downturn.

Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed full funding for the program again in 2009-10, but his budget proposal relies on nearly $5 billion from the federal economic stimulus bill that most Republicans in Congress opposed. Florida's House and Senate leaders are cautioning against depending on the federal money without making spending cuts.

The Nature Conservancy report said Florida's tourism pumps $65 billion annually into the economy and depends on natural resources protection. With almost 21 million visitors a year, Florida's 161 state parks give the state economy a $1-billion economic shot in the arm, according to the report.

"Tourism, hunting and wildlife viewing generate significant tax revenues and jobs and connect millions of people to Florida's natural heritage," Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates, a firm that analyzes the economics of outdoor recreation, said in a statement accompanying the report. "These activities are a real treasure and a bargain for Florida."

State parks also created 20,100 jobs and generated more than $70 million annual from sales taxes to the state, according to The Nature Conservancy. The report also identified economic benefits from Florida Forever hunting and fishing, water quality, coastal protection and the role of state lands in military training.

Key House and Senate members could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon as legislative committees were meeting.

The Nature Conservancy said the report will be used to urge legislators to fully fund Florida Forever during the legislative session, which began this week.

To read the report, click on the following link:

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