They came in busloads from around the state, crammed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection parking lot in Tallahassee full of cars and packed into standing-room-only hearings.
During the 1990s, public hearings for the annual ranking of proposed state land-buying projects brought out the people. Getting ranked higher on the priority list meant those natural areas were more likely to be protected. A lower ranking meant the land could get developed instead.
But the state in 2000 developed a new system that included no project rankings and only two tiers of "A" and "B" lists with 110 projects, including 21 identified as highest priority. With no ranking process and seemingly less at stake, the crowds quit coming to the annual hearings, according to state officials and consultants.
The Legislature this year provided no new money for the Florida Forever land-buying program for the first time since 1990. Now, some environmental groups and consultants are urging the state to return to a ranking system to encourage public involvement and support for Florida Forever.
"Getting this kind of ranking procedure back is going to re-energize this program and make it more apparent to the Legislature -- through heavy grassroots lobbying -- this is a needed vital program," said Richard Hilsenbeck, director of Conservation Programs at the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. "And it's going to help with the funding for this program -- I guarantee it."
A key Florida House member also says that a ranking system is needed. But he also said Florida Forever -- like the rest of the state government -- faces a budget challenge.
Florida Forever is the largest of any state or federal conservation land-buying program in the country, according to DEP. Since 1990, Florida has acquired 2.4 million acres for state forests, city and state parks, water management district lands, wildlife management areas and conservation easements on private lands.
But with the state earlier this year facing a $6 billion revenue decline, the Legislature approved a fiscal year 2009-10 budget of $66.5 billion that didn't include the $300 million in bonding authority that Florida had received since 1990.
Environmental groups and consultants urged the state Acquisition and Restoration Council this week to rank projects within each of the five new purchase categories. And council members agreed -- saying that ranking would provide needed "transparency" in the land-buying process.
But some DEP officials warned that ranking projects in the past allowed landowners to hold out for higher prices. Former DEP Secretary Colleen Castille, now a partner in the Go Green Strategies consulting firm, agreed that the ranking created difficulties for the state.
"Those properties that were on the top of the list held everybody else hostage -- unless you could hire enough lobbying power to get moved up," Castille told the council.
Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, told FloridaEnvironments.com that a return to a ranking system is needed.
"I think the rankings are absolutely crucial," he said. "What we have been doing for quite a few years -- we have been buying with a scatter-gun. We have been going out buying land just because we had the money to buy it with."
Poppell says he supports Florida Forever, but he also has been one of the most outspoken critics of it in the Legislature. He says the state should quit borrowing money to pay for the program and that the Legislature should provide funding when general revenue rebounds after the economic downturn.
The Washington Post today published a story saying that local governments in the D.C. area are picking up good deals for conservation. Poppell said he's heard that argument from supporters of Florida Forever.
"I answered them, when you're broke there is no such thing as a good time to buy land," he said.
(Topsail Hill State Park photo copyrighted by James Valentine. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not redistribute without permission.)