In Florida, Maybe Money Does Grow on Trees

If you’ve lived in Florida for even a few years, in a blink of an eye, you’ve seen sleepy towns and communities grow into massive, sprawling cities. Scenic views we thought would always be there have been paved over and replaced by big box chain stores and restaurants. Open spaces have been quickly converted into subdivisions, the only remnant of these once-natural areas being the names they put on the community gates.

Like everyone else in Florida, I want our state to prosper and grow economically. But I also believe that we can and must balance our growth with the preservation of our greatest natural assets.

Despite the adage that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” in Florida that’s not entirely accurate. Entrepreneurs who are looking for a great place to grow their business, young professionals weighing options on where they can put down roots, and working people from around the country who now want to enjoy the fruits of their labor — they all move here for the high quality of life that our natural areas, rivers, trails, beaches, parks, and springs afford. Population growth and the development that goes along with it is the top economic driver in our state.

Tourism, our second biggest economic sector, shows how money may grow on trees here in Florida. In 2015, tourism added $108 billion to the economy and created more than 1.3 million jobs. The top visited tourist locations in Florida are our sunny beaches, hiking trails, and parks.

So, our fast-paced growth should come as no surprise — like others before me have said, everyone wants to live in paradise. But each time we auction off a slice of paradise, something is lost that we will never recover. Florida’s once abundant waters, natural treasures, and beauty are an inheritance given to us all that we cannot afford to squander.

That’s why we worked so hard to pass the 2014 Water and Land Amendment. It’s why legions of volunteers sweated through an eighteen-month campaign to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures to place the amendment on the ballot. And why millions of Floridians voted ‘yes’ in support. It was reaffirming for me to see that level of enthusiastic participation in our great democracy, especially because it gave voice to the conservation values that we as Floridians share.

Honestly, it makes me angry to see Tallahassee politicians ignore the crystal clear will of the voters, instead relying on bureaucratic budgetary hocus-pocus to snub practical and proven land acquisition programs like Florida Forever. State lawmakers set aside an astonishing $0 in the budget this year for Florida Forever land conservation. How do you protect paradise on $0 a year? The answer is: you don’t.

Unlike other states that rely on snowmelt, rivers, and lakes for drinking water, in Florida, conserving land is conserving water. Population projections show that we’re still growing as a state, and we’re thirsty. With most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as we see every day with the costly and ongoing restoration of the Everglades. Our taxpayer dollars are paying for the destruction of generations past. I, for one, do not want to saddle future generations with that same burden.

We have an opportunity to be wiser today than our predecessors. We can learn from our past. We have the knowledge and the science to make the right decisions to balance growth with preservation and to ensure that our economy thrives, even while people continue to move here. In some cases, the state doesn’t even have to buy the land. Through easements, land agencies can protect and maintain important water resources, conservation areas, and rural lands from being transformed into yet another megamall or sprawling concrete subdivision. But they can’t do it without funding.

My hope is that lawmakers turn over a new leaf this year begin to spend conservation dollars as Florida voters directed. As they often point out themselves, it’s our taxpayer dollars in their purse. Through the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Amendment, voters very clearly directed them to “acquire and restore Florida conservation lands.” Doing so helps safeguard our economy, protect our drinking water, and defend the natural treasures that make Florida a remarkable place to visit and call home.