Putnam pitches land deals to protect military bases

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, said Tuesday the state needs to increase spending for land preservation to help protect military bases from closure.

Putnam voiced displeasure that state lawmakers did not provide more money during the current budget year for conservation efforts. Lawmakers set aside $10 million for the state's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and nothing for the Florida Forever land-acquisition program.

“Hopefully they'll fix that problem next year,” Putnam said.

Putnam, speaking in Orlando at a Florida Chamber Foundation event focused on the state support for the military and veterans entering the workforce, said he views the use of conservation dollars as a means to protect land around military bases —- an allowed use of the money. That could reduce chances the federal government will close bases through a process known as Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC.

“Natural resource policy can also be economic development policy,” Putnam said. “Natural resource policy can also be military and BRAC-proofing policy. It can also be encroachment policy. So while you're protecting any number of species and watersheds and habitat and creating outdoor recreation opportunities, you're also protecting Eglin (Air Force Base in Okaloosa County), Pinecastle (bombing range in the Ocala National Forest) and Avon Park (Air Force Range) training opportunities.”

After his appearance at the Military, Defense & Veterans Opportunities Summit in the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, Putnam said Florida Forever should get at a minimum $50 million a year “if you're going to make an impact at today's real-estate values.”

“I would anticipate that a significantly higher number than that is necessary to accomplish what we want to accomplish, to have connected corridors in Florida and protect the things, conserve the things that make Florida Florida,” Putnam said.

Florida Forever was once a $300-million-a-year fund. But the program lost favor as lawmakers reduced funding after the state entered the recession a decade ago, with some arguing the state had to prioritize money to manage land already in state hands. The argument continues to be expressed by legislators.

The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, a favorite of Putnam, is used to purchase conservation easements, which restrict future development while allowing existing landowners to continue using the property for such things as agriculture.

The drop in funding has come despite clear signs that Floridians support land conservation.

Voters in 2014 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that was designed to set aside money for land and water conservation. A large chunk of money in the current budget was directed into a reservoir (SB 10) and other Everglades work totaling $155 million. Money would also go to beach projects and maintaining the state's natural springs.

In recent years, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, which includes Putnam, have approved spending to help protect military bases.

This year, they approved the purchase of 8.4 acres from Bay County for $1.67 million to provide a larger buffer zone for the Naval Support Activity facility in Panama City and approved spending about $1.58 million to help conserve land in Highlands County that provides buffer for the Avon Park Air Force Range.

In 2015, Scott and the Cabinet agreed to spend $630,000 to obtain the development rights for several acres west of Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville to restrict the amount of future development within the neighboring Mayport Village.

Two years before that, Scott and the Cabinet voted on a $10.2 million deal to conserve nearly 21,000 acres in Northwest Florida and help provide a buffer to Eglin Air Force Base.

“Look at the layers of benefits that come from that program,” Putnam said of Florida Forever. “Not only do you have the obvious water recharge, wildlife habitat, connecting corridors, public recreation areas, but in circumstances where those conservations are near military training ranges or bases, you're getting the additional benefit of BRAC-proofing Florida.”

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