State-bought easement belongs to Scott appointee

By Lucas Seiler

The Florida Cabinet voted to purchase two conservation easements, and NBC2 discovered one of the properties in Southwest Florida belongs to an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

FWC Chairman Liesa Priddy owns and operates the JB Ranch in Immokalee. The state will place conservation restrictions on a portion of it for $3.75 million.

More than 9,000 acres of the land sits nearly untouched right in the middle of two already environmentally sensitive areas -- Big Cypress National Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Now, more than 1600 acres of it will be protected to keep the land in production for agriculture while making sure future development doesn't destroy years of preservation.

"To recover a species like the Florida panther, the government lands and protected lands aren't going to do it alone," said refuge manager Kevin Godsea. "They have to work with the private landowners. We have to work with those private landowners, and they hold a big key to land protection."

As a rancher, Priddy has been vocal about having the public take responsibility for protecting endangered species, so the burden isn't on ranchers. Many argue ranches provide space for animals like the Florida panther to roam free, and without them, they'd be extinct.

Priddy said she had no comment about the proposed conservation easement.

"What the taxpayer gets out of it is the (certainty) of no future development and future ability to protect a species and recover a specifies," said Godsea.

Despite restrictions like building new roads or buildings, JB Ranch will retain the right to explore for oil and gas if it meets Collier County's requirements. For some, that contradicts the purpose of a conservation easement.

"The animals have to live," said Dassey Gordon of Pembroke Pines. "You've got to keep the whole environment clean. I have no problem protecting wildlife and Florida does have a lot of undeveloped land."

Gov. Scott supported conserving JB Ranch and another property called  Kilbee Ranch in central Florida but felt the state could have agreed on a better price regarding Kilbee.

The remaining Cabinet members behind the vote -- Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam -- could not be reached for comment.