Land Conservation and Sea Level Rise—Florida Edition

Nov 24, 2014 | Margaret A. Walls

If you’re a fan of crime fiction with a dash of humor, you might have read some of Carl Hiaasen’s books—Skinny Dip, Nature Girl, Paradise Screwed, to name three. If so, you’ve probably noticed Hiaasen’s love of nature, specifically the wild and woolly swamps and back woods of south Florida. In early November, Hiaasen wrote an impassioned plea to Floridians in the Miami Herald to vote yes on Amendment 1 in the November 4 elections. Amendment 1, The Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, was to establish a constitutional amendment that would dedicate 33 percent of revenues from an existing document stamp tax to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which acquires land and conservation easements for parks, trails, wildlife habitat, historic sites, wetlands, and more. Hiaasen’s opinion piece must have worked: the Amendment passed resoundingly, with 75 percent of the vote. Only 11 other states have constitutional amendments like this and many are for funds that are quite small. The new initiative in Florida really is noteworthy.

Florida already had the most aggressive land conservation program in the country. Its Florida Forever program, created in 2001, authorized spending of $300 million per year on land acquisitions and conservation easements. Together with the precursor program, Preservation 2000, which operated from 1990-2000 and had similar levels of funding, Florida Forever has protected over 2.5 million acres of land. These spending and acreage totals dwarf the numbers in other states, and 29 percent of Florida’s land area is now protected, a percentage significantly above other states. I’m guessing these facts might come as a surprise to many people who think only of Florida’s densely developed coastal areas and high population growth rate. The purpose of the new constitutional amendment is to restore funding to the program, which in recent years had been diverted to other uses. Passage of the amendment might also come as a surprise, but the track record on conservation ballot initiatives suggests this is no anomaly: between 1988 and 2014, according to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database, voters across the country have passed 75 percent of the conservation funding initiatives that have been placed on ballots.

What next then for Florida? The dedicated funding stream comes at a time when challenges posed by climate change loom large for the state. Many of the lands the state has already protected are at risk. RFF Fellows Rebecca Epanchin-Niell and Carolyn Kousky and I have been assessing the status of protected lands in shoreline counties of the 15 states along the East coast. We’ve mapped the location of these lands (which include parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, private lands under a conservation easement, and more), determined what types of lands exist in each location (wetlands, forests, farmland, etc.) and who owns them. (The Protected Areas Database from the USGS Gap Analysis Program and NOAA’s C-CAP land cover data formed the basis for our work.) We’ve also analyzed how many acres and what types of lands would be inundated with a 3-foot sea level rise. (We used NOAA’s Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer for this analysis.) Our research shows that Florida’s substantial investment in conservation will take a hit. Thirty-six percent of the land in Florida’s shoreline counties, or 7.3 million acres, is currently protected and 26 percent of this land—or 1.9 million acres—will be inundated with a 3-foot sea level rise. These natural areas are major suppliers of ecosystem services such as protection from storm surge, water purification, carbon storage, wildlife habitat, and recreation. These services will be altered at best—and at worst, may be lost altogether unless the state plans ahead to replace them.

In our research, we are taking stock of how well-prepared all 15 east coast states are to address the impacts of climate change on protected natural lands. We’re looking at whether they have climate adaptation plans in place, whether those plans address protected lands, and how far along the states are in implementation. We’re also tallying the financial resources the states devote to conservation vis-à-vis the amount of protected acreage at risk from sea level rise. This varies widely: New York spends a lot on conservation programs but has very little protected lands acreage that would be inundated with 3 feet of sea level rise; South Carolina is the opposite—it has a large amount of inundated acreage in the 3-foot sea level rise scenario and spends very little on conservation. It also has not developed a climate adaptation plan. Preliminary results of this analysis were presented at Restore America’s Estuaries 7th National Summit on Coastal and Estuarine Restoration and 24th Biennual Meeting of the Coastal Society earlier this month; a final paper will be ready in 2015.

Florida is an interesting case as it spends a lot—and presumably, with the new constitutional amendment, those funds will be more predictable year-to-year—but it also faces a daunting problem. Will the state “squander” the money on lands that will eventually be inundated? (Whether it’s actually squandering depends on discount rates and how far off in the future sea level rise will occur, among other things.) Or will it be forward-thinking and target new lands that can help to replace the ecosystem services that will be lost to sea level rise? These are difficult and complex decisions, given the uncertainty about sea level rise at the local level. With the new amendment to the constitution, Florida should at least be better-positioned financially to address these important issues.