Florida’s future: Can conservation balance urban sprawl, rising sea level?

August 16, 2023

Where Jim Strickland ranches, the cattle are bred for the heat. They have to be. Palm trees sway in the subtropical pastures of Florida, where Strickland manages Blackbeard’s Ranch just east of the Sarasota beaches. It’s one of the larger intact working cow-calf operations in southern Florida.

Strickland’s family has been in the cattle business since 1860. His father established Strickland Ranch in 1938, and, when the elder Strickland died in 1973, the then-17-year-old Jim took over. He doesn’t own much land himself, he says, but he has operated tens of thousands of acres of leased land. And in his six decades of ranching experience, he has seen Florida grow—and the landscape change.

In 1973, about 7.9 million people lived in Florida. The state’s population almost tripled to 22 million by 2022 and is expected to gain another 5 million by 2040. All those people need places to live, and historically the solution has been (former) farm and ranch land.

“Let’s never forget that nearly every housing development used to be a cattle ranch,” Strickland says.

Slim profit margins in agriculture have made it difficult for families to stay on and make a living from the land, he adds. Especially when society has needed, and driven up the market for, land on which to build homes, hospitals and shopping centers.

“We know Florida is going to grow,” Strickland says. “We can’t stop, nor do we want to stop, development. We just need decision-makers to realize what land does for Florida.”

The value of agriculture

Agricultural and timber lands provide more than just food and other fundamental products. With management, they play important roles in providing clean water, clean air, and a healthy ecosystem good for both people and wildlife.

We need the land—not just for agriculture but for life.

Strickland envisions a day when society recognizes the value of agriculture and compensates farmers, ranchers and foresters for delivering ecosystem services. First, agriculture must quantify those ecosystem services through research.

That’s how Florida Climate Smart Agriculture (FLCSA) started, bringing together a diverse and bipartisan group of agricultural leaders. FLCSA, which Strickland co-chairs alongside Lynetta Usher Griner, is working to bring Florida’s farmers, ranchers and foresters to the forefront of resolving food system, energy, environmental and climate challenges.

“We started advocating for studies that show what land mass does for everybody,” says Strickland, listing water quality, water filtration, carbon sequestration, aquafer recharge, wildlife corridors and endangered species habitat as a few examples.

Sea Level 2040 report: Florida’s future

One of these studies is the Florida’s Rising Seas: Mapping Our Future, a joint GIS-based analytical project of the University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning and 1000 Friends of Florida.

As part of the project, the Sea Level 2040 report paints a picture of what Florida could look like by 2040—with and without efforts to protect natural and agricultural lands.

The report builds on the Florida 2070/Water 2070 report released in 2016, incorporating the impacts of rise in sea level based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s 2022 intermediate projection of 0.25 meters. This equates to about 1 million acres of Florida land (most of which is already protected) lost and 205,000 residents displaced. 

The report models two potential scenarios, both assuming a population growth of nearly 5 million people and the sea level rise:

  1. The Sprawl 2040 Scenario reflects a continuation of 2019 population densities and development patterns over the next two decades.
  2. The Conservation 2040 Scenario reflects a 12% increase in protected natural lands compared to the baseline, or a total of more than 14 million acres (39% of Florida’s overall area). In this scenario, development is 30% more compact.

Under the sprawl scenario modeled, about 400,000 acres of agricultural land and another 750,000 acres of other land, including timberland, will be lost by 2040.

If the conservation scenario plays out, there would be 5 million more acres of proposed protected natural lands and 2.4 million more acres of proposed protected agricultural lands, compared to the sprawl scenario.

The land used for this scenario has already been identified as high priority natural lands as defined by the state’s existing Florida Forever land acquisition program and the top three priorities in the Florida Ecological Greenways Network. It’s marsh land and riparian areas. It’s raw wilderness, and it’s ranch land.

Conservation easements as a tool

Strickland, who did his first conservation easement 20 to 24 years ago, says, while they are not the sole answer, conservation easements can be a great tool for keeping land in agriculture. It makes sense, he says, for farmers to continue managing these lands. They can do it cheaper than the state, and the state keeps these businesses on their tax rolls. They also benefit rural economies.

“A conservation easement is basically a purchase of the property’s development rights,” Strickland says. “What I would really like is to be able to show development rights as one strand of that bundle of rights that landowners own.”

Through research, Strickland wants to be able to show that landowners can sequester carbon on different eco-landscapes, whether slough, swamp, marsh, range or orange grove. This would enable them to participate in carbon markets. He wants to be able to identify endangered species that live on the land and for landowners to receive credit in some way for managing for their habitat.

“Let’s do the research and bring the economist down and say, ‘What is this worth?’” Strickland says. It may be payment or tax benefits. In any case, he says: “We need to recognize what we do for society.”

Next steps

The Sea Level 2040 report visualizes the need for society to protect natural and agricultural lands in Florida. In their next phase of work, University of Florida project managers are tasked with working with FLCSA to:

  • Develop policy and planning recommendations to recognize the pressures on the maintenance of agricultural production across landscapes where growth and development is anticipated.
  • Identify areas where the maintenance of agricultural production is desirable to maintain habitat corridors and ecosystem services benefits.
  • Bolster strategies to protect agricultural and rural lands that can provide ecosystem services and climate resiliency benefits, with a particular focus on inland watersheds and springheads.

FLCSA will be using its network to:

  • Socialize the Florida’s Rising Seas: Mapping Our Future project reports and findings across the many Florida agricultural, livestock and forestry organizations.
  • Organize a workshop to share land trend information with leaders of these organizations.
  • Build and facilitate a diverse, multi-stakeholder, cross-boundary work group that can analyze the trends data and formulate priorities and policy recommendations on future land use for the consideration of agricultural and forestry stakeholder organizations in the state.

“These studies are needed to show us what the future of Florida is going to look like,” Strickland says. “We’re going to have droughts, we’re going to have climate change, we’re going to have the sea level rise. But let’s look at what the future of Florida is like, not just two years from now but 500, and show the attributes of agricultural lands.”

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