Land donation for Big Cypress National Preserve fulfills decades-old promise from state

— A patchwork of land — spanning more than 29,000 acres in the Big Cypress National Preserve — will finally go from state hands to the National Park Service.

On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet voted unanimously to transfer the land, delivering on a decades old state promise to purchase and donate lands for the preserve to the federal park service.

“It’s a big success,” said Brad Cornell, a policy advocate for the Collier County Audubon Society and Audubon of Florida.

In September, the state’s executive leaders delayed a decision on the transfer, waiting for the release of a federal management plan for what’s known as the “Addition Lands” in the preserve. A chunk of the land the state is donating is in this area of the park and the land has long been neglected, Cornell said.

“This was a major positive step for conservation in Southwest Florida, to have these lands go to the National Park Service,” he said. “The state has not been managing them. They have had some of them since the 1970s and they haven’t done anything with them.”

“There’s dumping,” he said. “There is trespassing. There is a fire hazard. They haven’t been doing anything about it.”

A final management plan for the Addition Lands was announced last month. It will become official after the decision is published in the Federal Register, which will likely happen in the next few months, Cornell said.

“There is still litigation over how much access there is going to be for off-road vehicles,” he said. “But this management plan is the final version. Everybody has had lots of input.”

The plan would designate about 47,000 acres in the preserve as “wilderness,” prohibiting motor vehicles and roads in that area. At the same time, it will increase access to other lands for recreation, such as hiking, fishing and hunting.

“The outcome was not satisfactory to anybody,” Cornell said. “I suppose if everyone is unhappy that is the right compromise.”

In 1974, the state agreed to donate lands it owned in the Big Cypress National Preserve to the park service. In 1988, the preserve was expanded to include about 150,000 acres of state-owned lands, which became known as the “Addition.”

“The question was not if this exchange was going to take place,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “It was a question of when. The commitment by the state to do this dates back to the ‘70s.”

He said state concerns over recreational access and how the Addition Lands would be managed likely delayed the transfer for years.

“The Cabinet approved it with the clear understanding that the state and the federal government need to be full partners and need to fully cooperate in the preserve,” Fuller said.

Tuesday’s meeting was one of the last for Crist and the Cabinet. They are all leaving office at the same time.

Without the transfer the new management plan couldn’t be implemented, Cornell said.

“Now it’s the last minute,” he said. “It really has to happen now. Maybe that was the motivation.”

The state will get $4 million from the federal government for the land transfer. That’s because the state paid more than its required 20 percent share when it acquired the land years ago. Under its agreement with the state, the federal government has to pick up 80 percent of the total acquisition cost.

“They didn’t just pull $4 million out of a hat. They had a formula,” Fuller said.

Cornell said he hopes to see the $4 million used to buy more conservation land in Collier County through a state land acquisition program, known as Florida Forever. Cash-strapped, the state has allocated few dollars to the program over the past two years, he said.

“The state’s action is welcomed as it largely fulfills the commitment by several Florida governors, as well as the intent of past and current senators and congressmen, representing the people of Florida,” said Pedro Ramos, Big Cypress National Preserve Superintendent.

There is still more land for the state to donate. The state still has about 10,000 acres in the preserve, known as the “School Board” lands.

“We are in dialog with the state of Florida, hoping that we can bring those lands up for transfer consideration in the near future,” Ramos said.

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

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