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Ag Commissioner Wilton Simpson wants to sell off lots of Florida preserve land

Simpson seems unaware that Rick Scott tried a similar stunt a decade ago and it didn’t go well


One of the great glories of Florida is the incredible amount of land that we’ve been able to save from development by buying it and turning it into state parks, beaches, and forests. Using such land-buying programs as Florida Forever, we’ve protected more than 10 million acres out of 42 million total in the entire state.

The downside of this remarkable effort is that, from time to time, some dunderheaded politician proposes we sell off a bunch of it.

Eleven years ago, it was a Navy-capped governor who these days can be found hanging out in a New York courtroom to listen to a porn star testify. That didn’t end well (his sell-the-parkland scheme, not the porn star’s testimony).

Now it’s state Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, who as far as I know is no relation to famed cartoon doofus Homer Simpson — although lately I am wondering.

I heard he’d brought up this sell-the-parks scheme a couple of times recently, but nobody had any transcripts or video. Then someone sent me a video from seven months ago of him speaking at a conference sponsored by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. If you want to fast forward to the important part, he talks about selling off public land from 24:10 to 26:06.

In the clip, Simpson goes on about declaring some precious state land to be surplus — i.e., no longer needed for preservation purposes.

That way it could be sold off, preferably, he said, to farmers who would then plant crops or raise livestock on the property. To make sure they didn’t turn around and sell it to developers, he said, the state would hold onto the development rights.

Simpson called it an innovative way to raise money for buying more land, while also saving money on the management of it. He thought we ought to sell quite a lot of it, too.

“Let’s say over the next five years we buy a billion dollars’ worth of property,” he told the conference crowd. “You could probably surplus $300 or $400 million of that.”

He went even further while talking to the Senate Agriculture Committee last fall. You can hear him wax eloquent on the subject from 6:32 to 8:13.

He called for declaring surplus some of the acreage the state had bought just the year before for the popular Florida Wildlife Corridor. Why should we sell off property we just bought? He offered one simple (in both senses of the word) reason.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the state to own all these lands,” he told the senators.

Not appropriate to preserve the best of natural Florida?

Why, it’s enough to make you say, “D’OH!”

A little poultry

You may find this news shocking, but no one has ever confused a Florida Cabinet meeting with a Mensa convention. But you could never convince the Cabinet members of that.

Perhaps that’s why you’re likely to see some or even all of them run for governor in 2026, to replace our current white-booted, pudding-fingered Ranter-in-Chief. Or perhaps they figure he’s lowered the bar for them. So let’s meet the meathea — er, I mean candidates.

There’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who thinks it would be a nifty idea for us taxpayers to pay the lawyer bills for acertain deluded Palm Beach club owner who smells funny. Next time you look at your astronomical property insurance bill, think of his job performance.

Then we have Attorney General Ashley Moody, who vowed when she first ran that she wouldn’t politicize the office. Since then, she’s joined so many ill-fated right-wing crusades that she’s become physically incapable of making a left turn in her car. She just circles the block until she gets where she’s going.

And then there’s Simpson, whom you frequently see described in stories as a “Trilby egg farmer.” That’s like saying Col. Sanders owns a little poultry.

What Simpson owns is an industrial egg production operation with, according to the Citrus County Chronicle, more than 1 million chickens plopping out the shelled breakfast staples. On his most recent financial disclosure form he listed his net worth as $20.6 million.

That is not, if you’ll pardon me for stating the obvious, chicken feed.

He parlayed his personal fortune into a political career, ultimately serving as Florida Senate president for two years before being elected to his current post. His tenure leading the Senate was primarily marked by a slavish devotion to doing whatever Big Sugar wanted.

For instance, he pushed through a bill to expand Florida’s Right to Farm Law to shield sugar companies from lawsuits over “particle emissions.” He did that because these polluters regularly burn their fields, blanketing the towns south of Lake Okeechobee with choking smoke.

One thing Simpson appears to be missing, though, is a sense of history. In calling for Florida environmental land to be declared surplus, he seems unaware of what happened the last time we tried that.

It was about as pretty as one of Stephen King’s nightmares.

A disaster and a charade

Hey kids, remember 2013? The world was a different place then.

The U.S. Supreme Court OK’d gay marriage — expanding rights, not taking them away. “Twerk” and “selfie” were new words in the dictionary. That New York businessman who owned some golf clubs in Florida visited Russia for the Miss Universe pageant, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Florida, a socially awkward multimillionaire who’d never worked in government before had somehow been elected governor.

He had little interest in the environment. To him it was just another budget item, one that he approached with all the care and concern of Freddy Krueger spotting a bunch of sleepy teens.

He was so clueless, he kept trying to make the state’s award-winning park system pay for itself. There was talk of allowing timber harvesting or even hunting in some parks (fortunately none of those ideas were ever carried out).

Then, in 2013, his Department of Environmental Do-nothing — er, excuse me, “Protection” — unveiled one of the most bizarre plans in Florida history. The department’s budget would include $20 million for buying more land, plus up to $50 million more that would be raised by selling off existing parkland.

To do that, state law said the DEP would need to declare that this property that had been bought under Florida Forever was not, in fact, a joy forever. It would have to be declared surplus, as in no longer needed for conservation.

Turns out finding property that fit that requirement was easier said than done. Months after that initial announcement, DEP officials finally posted a list of 169 properties covering about 5,000 acres that might be considered surplus.

Within weeks they had cut it to 4,000 acres. Turns out some of the land on the first list was underwater or had title problems making it difficult to sell.

The DEP folks also acknowledged they would never come up with $50 million worth of surplus land. The state had bought land that was needed, and that had not changed.

Once the 4,000-acre list became public, it stirred up strong opposition among not just environmental activists but also local residents and elected officials in the areas affected.

People displayed a feeling of ownership for the parks near where they lived. It didn’t matter what political party they belonged to. One Republican state senator called the whole process “a disaster” and “a charade.”

Somehow the governor who was in charge of this charade, Rick “Ain’t No Party Like a Tea Party Party” Scott, never spoke up to defend the unpopular idea.

Nine months after launching the surplus land review, the DEP quietly ended it. Two top DEP officials involved both resigned. Not one piece of land wound up being declared surplus. In fact, during the review, the state bought another $10 million worth.

Now here we are 11 years later with Simpson proposing we rerun this failed show, as if the outcome will be any different.

Of course, maybe it will be — if he’s in charge of it.

What would Homer do?

Once I’d seen for myself what Simpson was saying, I checked with some folks who care deeply about Florida’s environmental preserves. Some had already heard about him, but some hadn’t.

One who hadn’t: Clay Henderson, author of “Forces of Nature,” THE book on Florida’s preservation programs.

“The idea of a quick surplus just scares the hell out of me,” he told me.

He pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: Often when the state buys land, it spends time and money ripping out exotic plants, conducting controlled burns, and generally restoring it to a more natural condition.

Selling that just-bought state property to farmers “precludes any restoration of the property,” Henderson said.

I contacted the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation to ask what they thought of Simpson’s existential threat to their project’s future. The response from CEO Mallory Dimmitt: “We appreciate his forward-thinking in support of the Corridor vision and acknowledge that the details of this strategy are essential to understand to ensure conservation purpose is protected.”

Some people I talked to didn’t want to say anything on the record, apparently because they feared the Wrath of Simpson. But they were appalled that this was coming up all over again. They predicted that if Simpson ever makes this sell-off happen, it will undermine people’s confidence in both the Florida Forever and Florida Wildlife Corridor systems.

One person who was prepared to talk on the record was the aptly named Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council. He was already aware of Simpson’s Folly. He said his organization had been tracking the commissioner’s comments for a while. He told me something else I hadn’t thought of.

Say the state buys land for 100 percent of its value, Smart said. Then it turns around and sells it to a farmer, minus the development rights, which would remain in the state’s hands. That means the state would be paid LESS than the full value. It would be a money-loser, Smart pointed out.

Consider, too, that the farmers and ranchers will be putting out pesticides and fertilizers that could pollute the waterways.

“That would do incredible damage to the springs and rivers,” he told me.

This is more than mere talk. Smart told me that there was a bill filed in the last legislative session that would have made it much easier to declare land in the Florida Wildlife Corridor as surplus.

Senate Bill 1620, sponsored by Sen. Jay Collins, R-Idiculous, called for handing the DEP the power to declare surplus any land in the Florida Wildlife Corridor and sell it without the development rights. No need to first determine that it had lost its conservation purpose, which is what stymied the DEP a decade back.

“This is actually scarier than 10 years ago,” he told me.

You can tell who suggested this legislation because the bill says if DEP sells any land, the money will be handed over to Simpsons’ department.

Fortunately, the bill died in committee. Collins was much too busy ensuring kids learn about Communism to pursue it. But Smart said he expects to see it pop up again next year.

I tried several times to contact Simpson or his spokesperson so one of them could explain how his cockamamie idea wouldn’t wreck the whole state lands program. Unfortunately, he never responded.

Perhaps he was too busy selling off all the taxpayer-owned furniture in his office so he could turn it into another henhouse full of Rhode Island Reds. Honestly, that’s what a dumb cluck like Homer would do.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • san.gander

    New name for Wilton Simpson... Puddin' Head Simpson. He is not capable of doing his job, which is saving and preserving enough of Florida's natural lands for the wildlife and the people, the public, of Florida. Let's keep Florida, Florida!

    Sunday, May 19 Report this