Levy residents strategize to save Florida Forever

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By Kellie Parkin

Levy County citizens concerned about the environment joined residents of Alachua and Marion counties Mar 30 in Micanopy to strategize a response to the proposed state budget which reduces Florida Forever funding from the traditional amount of $12.4 million – leveraged to secure $300 million annually for land preservation – to $0 in the next fiscal year.

The Florida Forever program focuses on purchasing land and land use rights to conserve and permanently protect land resources.

Mark Carpenter, a mail carrier, rancher and ten year volunteer with Goethe State Forest who owns land just north of Bronson, attended the event. He said that it is important to keep funding Florida Forever. “We are at a critical point now. We need to continue with those [conservation] efforts.” He believes that preserving certain pieces of property is critical for Florida’s environment. “We can’t stop now,” Carpenter said.

Larry Feldhusen, councilmember of Yankeetown, agreed. He said that environmental damage that has happened in his lifetime is cause for concern. “I grew up in Florida down in Clearwater. Now I’m up here in Levy County and Yankeetown. The thing that struck me is that I started looking at how Florida had really changed since I was a kid. You can really be startled by how much of our natural Florida has been destroyed.”

Feldhusen attended the event to educate himself and so that he could educate others. “I was here to learn as much as I can so I can try to educate members of Levy County as well as anyone on my own council.” He would like to see responsible growth in Levy County that balances business development with nature preservation. “There are places suitable for development. But we’ve lost sight of the long term, big picture,“ he said.

Williston resident Brack Barker, a former DEP law enforcement officer in Levy, Citrus and Marion counties who now works in the ecotourism business, wants people to understand that what happens locally effects surrounding areas. “What happens in Williston effects the Rainbow watershed. This needs to be a regional movement.” He attended the event after seeing that no one from Levy was listed to attend. “I believe in the Florida Forever program. When I went to the Web site and didn’t see my home county listed, I thought it would be a show of support for Levy county.”

Last year the legislature unanimously passed a $3 billion decade long plan that was signed into law by Governor Charlie Christ to preserve Florida lands contingent upon yearly legislative approval.

Since 1990 the state has set aside billions of dollars - $300 million annually for 19 consecutive years- to save and preserve Florida’s significant natural and cultural resources. Due to the economic downturn and decreased revenues, the currently proposed budget would completely eliminate Florida Forever funding.

On March 19 the Levy County Commission passed the Florida Forever Land Conservation eeResolution to encourage the state’s continued support of the program. “Florida Forever . . . has assisted Florida’s cities and counties in protecting their cultural and historical resources, meeting the challenges of growth management, directing development away from coastal hazard areas and floodplains, fostering a healthier lifestyle for Floridians, and providing recreational outdoor experiences in both urban and rural setting,” according to resolution.

Levy County has benefited since the program began in 1999 - and from its earlier incarnation, Preservation 2000 begun in 1990 - to secure funding to preserve Yankeetown Water Resource Park, Yankeetown Wilderness Addition, Withlacoochee-Gulf Pathways and Cedar Key Cemetery Point Park.

“[T]he benefits of Florida Forever have included the purchase in such valuable resources as Devil’s Hammock, Watermelon Pond, Gulf Hammock Wacassassa Bay Preserve State Park, Nature Coast State Trail, Cross Florida Greenway and Goethe State Forest,” according to the resolution.

The resolution states that more than $20 billion is currently needed to purchase and preserve locations throughout Florida.

Barker would like to see county commissioners get even more involved in environmental preservation. “These are the kind of meetings that the county commissioners need to show up at,” he said. “Levy county is not pro-environment from what I’ve seen.”

No state-wide or Levy County elected officials attended the meeting.

Barker would like locally elected officials to be informed, especially now that Levy county is the proposed site for a Tarmac mine and two nuclear power plants. “We need more of an educational process for commissioners to come to these meetings instead of only hearing from the industry engineers,” he said. “The educational process needs to be more so they can make informed decisions instead of taking engineers’ reports at face value. They should attend so they can get another look at why its important to save these lands,” he said.

Andrew McLeod, Director of External Affairs for the Nature Conservancy, congratulated participants at the conclusion of the meeting. “If 64 other counties were represented as well as you all have represented Alachua, Levy and Marion we’d be better off,” he said.

The Florida legislature has yet to finalize the budget for next year.

Warren Parkin contributed to this article.