Florida officials are looking at using money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to help shield timber land in Dixie County from future development.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet next week will decide whether to spend $6.4 million to purchase what is known as a “conservation easement” on nearly 20,000 acres of timber land near the Suwannee River and Gulf of Mexico in the sparsely populated county.
In making the deal, the state is banking on a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. The foundation received $2.544 billion in 2013 as part of federal plea agreements with BP and Transocean stemming from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
Projects in Florida are expected to get $356 million of the money received by the foundation, which provides funds for such efforts as conserving coastal habitats and restoring beaches.
The grant is expected to cover all but $1 million of the state’s cost of the Dixie County deal, according to information provided to the Cabinet.
The proposal before Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — involves purchasing a conservation easement on 19,225 acres of land. Under a conservation easement, the land would be protected from development, but the owner, Lyme Cross City Forest Company, LLC, would be able to continue timber operations.
Scott and the Cabinet will take up the issue Tuesday, the final time they will meet before the makeup of the Cabinet changes in January. Bondi and Putnam will leave office in January because of term limits, while Scott is moving to the U.S. Senate.
Along with helping maintain the timber operations, information provided to the Cabinet indicates the deal would also help protect wetlands, wildlife habitat and archaeological sites.
Also, the information said keeping the land from future development would maintain “habitat and corridors for rare plants and animals over a wide swath of undeveloped public lands, including the neighboring Big Bend Wildlife Management Area, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, the Suwannee River Water Management District conservation areas, and the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve.”
Lyme Cross City Forest Company’s parent company, The Lyme Timber Company LP, owns about 700,000 acres in 10 states and purchased four tracts in Florida totaling more than 46,500 acres in 2013, according to the Cabinet information.
In 2016, Scott and the Cabinet approved spending $4.21 million for an 8,075-acre conservation easement on Lyme property.
The timber industry is the largest employer in Dixie County. The Cabinet information said “forestry, fishing, hunting, and agricultural support industries are 11 times more important to, or more concentrated in, the economy of Dixie County than in the rest of Florida.”
The remaining Lyme land, two tracts totaling 19,220 acres, are expected to be considered for future acquisitions as conservation easements, according to the Cabinet.
Also Tuesday, Scott and the Cabinet will be asked to use $463,500 from the state’s Rural & Family Lands Protection Program to acquire a separate 858-acre conservation easement in Hamilton County that would allow Adams Alapaha Farm to continue operating.
The land near the Alapaha River, owned by the Adams family since after the Civil War, is used for cow-calf operations, black oil sunflowers, timber production, hunting and grazing.
Jim Turner reports for The News Service of Florida.