TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Poinciana Monday morning to officially sign the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act into law. The broadly bipartisan, unanimously-approved bill is considered a big step to preserving Florida’s natural beauty for future generations.

“We’re here to preserve our environment through land acquisition and conservation and to ceremonially sign SB 976, which establishes the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said. “Protecting Florida’s environment’s been a top priority of my administration from the beginning, and when I took office we set an ambitious agenda to tackle Florida’s water quality issues and have taken significant action to restore the Everglades and protect our water resources.”

The event was held at the Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve on Scrub Jay Trail. DeSantis was joined by Department of Environmental Protection Interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton, along with Senate President Wilton Simpson, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, and representatives from a collection of wildlife conservancy organizations and the National Geographic Society.

The Walt Disney Company owns National Geographic.

Broad support in the Legislature, across Florida

DeSantis first acknowledged the tragedy in Surfside, which delayed original plans to highlight the bill’s signing, then emphasized the “record” funding that has been allocated for protecting Florida’s wildlife and improving the state’s water quality and land conservation. The Florida Forever program was of particular note by the governor.

Sprowls took the podium after the governor and noted the power of the bill’s bipartisan, unanimous support in both chambers of the Legislature. He highlighted the law’s status as a passion project of Simpson.

“That passion was absolutely infectious throughout the legislature,” Sprowls said. “It’s one of those great days in the legislature when you get to pass a bill like this, that truly brings together all of Florida.”

The Speaker said it’s not often that a bill unites so many groups, from cattle ranchers to the conservation community, Republicans and Democrats, everyone who is worried about Florida’s future and what it will look like “for hundreds of years.” He thanked Senator Jason Brodeur and Rep. Keith Truenow for their work on the legislation.

Simpson took the stand next, thanking those present for their support.

“When you think about all of this land, mostly conservation easements hopefully, you’ll have agriculture staying on this property well into the future, thousands of years,” Simpson said, then thanked the governor for his efforts on the environment.

Representatives of the National Geographic Society were present, thanking the state lawmakers for their “bipartisan, unanimous support,” according to Dr. Ian Miller, of the society.

Miller recognized Tampa-based National Geographic explorer and photographer Carlton Ward for being a “driving force for this effort.” Since 2011, Ward made it “his mission to help create the Florida Wildlife Corridor, to secure habitats for the area’s iconic wildlife, including the Florida panther.”

What the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act does

“Thanks to the Governor’s bold vision and the continued support of the legislature, Florida’s environmental priorities have remained strong, including land acquisition for protection of our natural resources and wildlife,” said Interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton at the event. “This bill will further Florida’s conservation efforts by building upon a network of public and private lands to provide critical habitat for wildlife across the state.”

The Act establishes 18 million acres of land through the law, with 10 million of them set for preservation efforts, as an existing geographic are developed through efforts by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Coalition. The state budget allocates $300 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as an investment for land acquisition and conservation easements, on top of the $100 million already appropriated for the Florida Forever program, according to the governor.

The money “provides Florida with the opportunity to increase progress for protecting our lands for future generations,” DeSantis said.

From SB 976, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, the state Legislature reports that the state’s rapid population growth and that the lands and waters that give the state’s green infrastructure and vital habitats wide-ranging wildlife must be protected.

Through the law, Florida will create incentives for conservation and sustainable development, while sustaining and conserving already-existing green infrastructure, “that is the foundation” of the state’s economy.

This goal will be met through the following steps:

  • Maintain wildlife access to habitats for migration and genetic exchange among regional wildlife
  • Preventing the fragmentation of wildlife habitats
  • Protecting the headwaters of major watersheds, such as the Florida Everglades and the St. Johns River
  • Provide ecological connectivity of lands needed for flood and sea-level rise resiliency and large-scale ecosystem functions, including water management and prescribed burns
  • Preserve and protect land and waters vital to wildlife and critical to state groundwater recharge, and that serve as watersheds for drinking water
  • Provide wildlife crossings for protection and safety of wildlife and public travel
  • Sustain the state’s working ranches, farms and forest to sustain wildlife habitats and rural prosperity and agricultural production

Under the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, Florida DEP will have new duties, such as:

  • Encourage all state, regional, and local agencies that acquire lands, including, but not limited to, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of Transportation, to include in their land-buying efforts the acquisition of sufficient legal interest in opportunity areas to ensure the continued viability of the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Encourage investment in conservation easements voluntarily entered into by private landowners to conserve opportunity areas.
  • Encourage state land-buying agencies and state land management agencies to consider the conservation of opportunity areas as a multiphased project for the purpose of listing, acquisition, and management.
  • Consider the inclusion of private funds to supplement the state’s contribution in its efforts to acquire a fee or 123 less-than-fee interest in lands that contain recognized opportunity areas and conserved lands in the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Seek opportunities to attract new sources of federal funding and to strengthen existing programs to protect and conserve the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Encourage private landowners, through existing and future incentives and liability protections, to continue to allow their private property to be used for the preservation and enhancement of the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Encourage new approaches and novel financing mechanisms for long-term protection of the Florida wildlife corridor, including, but not limited to, public-private partnerships; payments for ecosystem services; blended financing for growth, resilience, and green infrastructure; and support for the sustainable growth of agriculture.
  • Encourage state and local agencies with economic and ecotourism development responsibilities to recognize the importance of the Florida wildlife corridor in encouraging public access to wildlife areas and bringing nature-based tourism to local communities and to support acquisition and development activities for preservation and enhancement of the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Encourage private investment in ecotourism focused on the Florida wildlife corridor.
  • Encourage the protection, preservation, and enhancement of the natural value of the Florida wildlife corridor for current and future residents of this state.

The law also requires that by Dec. 31, 2021, the St. Johns River Water Management District must, along with DEP, Seminole County, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Department of Transportation submit a report about the implementation of recommendations from the Little Wekiva Watershed Management Plan Report of 2005 to show completion dates, analysis of project results, and a rundown of ongoing costs for operation and maintenance of sediment accumulation in the Little Wekiva River.

The report must also include known violations of water management district permits that have contributed to sediment buildup north of S.R. 436 since 2018, and determine the effects of those violations on the river.