What does "forever" mean?
For Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the definition likely won't be the same as yours. His idea of the "Florida Forever" land-buying conservation program is more like "Florida Until I Say Otherwise."
And now he has said otherwise.
At Scott's order, the St. Johns River Water Management District started in December examining the nearly 600,000 acres it owns, including some bought under the Florida Forever program, to see what is "surplus" and could be sold.
This is puzzling. If a particular piece of land is needed for conservation or water management, how does it become "surplus"? It's not as if the topography of this 18-county chunk of Florida experienced the creation of a mountain or sank into the ocean in the decade since Florida Forever was created.
Among the properties that were considered for the auction block are 22,881 acres the St. Johns owns in Lake County. And now, as the process is drawing to a close, water-district officials propose getting rid of 2,434 of them in one way or another. That's a particularly bad idea for 800 of those acres, an area called Pine Meadows, just east of Eustis.
Local environmentalists at a community meeting last week fought to keep the water agency from selling the property. They fear it will fall into the hands of a peat company, and they accused the St. Johns of smoothing the way for the company, which is seeking county approval to mine the property next door. (Never mind that a big chunk of the land is in protected Wekiva River areas where all new mines are prohibited.)
"Now, who's the most logical buyer?" asked Joan Bryant, president of Trout Lake Nature Center. Trout Lake is a badly polluted water body that could only get worse if the property were sold and mined.
Ken LaRoe, First Green Bank president and CEO who led a successful Lake County preservation effort in 2004, said trying to sell the land was a "subterfuge" and a "nicey-nice way for something insidious."
"I wouldn't want anybody on that land. We have fought very hard to preserve land in our county, and this is my land," he said.
Pine Meadows was purchased in three pieces starting in 1992, when it was being used as a muck farm to grow grain for cattle feed. Farmers built dikes around the west land and pumped highly polluted water from it into Hicks Ditch, which crosses the property flowing south.
Water in the ditch still travels to Trout Lake, considered the most seriously "impaired" — other than Lake Apopka — in the Ocklawaha Chain by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The St. Johns stopped the muck farming after buying Pine Meadows, which Robert Christianson, director of operations and land resources for the agency, said was the goal. So, he said, the agency "declared success" and no longer needs the land. More could be done, he acknowledged, but the St. Johns board believes it's too expensive because it would involve building levees.
The district proposes to sell most of the property with what's called a conservation easement. That, however, can be negotiated to allow many harmful activities, the environmentalists warned.
In addition, the county has tentative plans for a trail from Trout Lake Nature Center through Pine Meadows to Lake May Conservation Area, purchased just a few years ago.
"I'm a little baffled at how this property ever got this far in the process — it's a poster child — enormously significant for water management," said Hugh Kent, who sold his Lake May property to the county's preservation program several years ago and is a former president of the nature center.
There are many good reasons for the state to hang on to this land and no compelling reason to put it on the market — except for Scott's misguided push to get rid of conservation lands.
How shortsighted. Money for conservation property has always been dear, and only the most desperately needed lands have been bought through the years. Because of Florida's natural swampy nature, water is always going to require the state buy some land for management.
Local environmentalists have worked hard through the years to guide the purchases and to do what they could to protect the resource that makes Lake such an attractive place.
Anyone who would like to comment on the proposed Pine Meadows sale may do so at floridaswater.com/landassessmentform.
The governor's obsession with budget cutting doesn't need to extend to important properties here.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to connect with her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenonlake