There's $380 million in Hurricane Michael money available for farmers. But Florida and the USDA can't agree on how to spend it.
There's about a $100 million difference in how the Florida Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture want to spend disaster relief money in eight north Florida counties.
The money is part of $380 million in block grants that became available in November for the region devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
State Forester Jim Karels told the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday that Florida and the USDA can’t reach agreement on how many acres a landowner can claim for grants to pick up tree debris, replant trees, and rebuild irrigation systems.
The state wants to set a cap at 5,000 acres per landowner. The USDA responded with a cap of 1,500 acres.
Karels told the panel the dispute makes no sense.
"They approved our formula, they approved the amount we asked for, but now they want to set an arbitrary low cap which hurts restoring the land and, in essence, makes the state having to send money back," Karels said.
At a 1,500-acre cap, the state would not be able to distribute all the money available because fewer than 30 of the 16,000 timber farmers who lost their crops own more than 5,000 acres.
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The money would be awarded under a sliding scale for how close to harvest the tree was, and whether it was pine or hardwood. (For example, a stand of 30-year-old pine trees would be eligible for up to $573 per acre.)
The Forest Service calculates that, with the lower cap, about $100 million of the grant would be left over. That would then have to be returned to the federal government.
"We don’t want to do that," Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said while Karels spoke.
And the lower cap of 1,500 acres would clean up and reforest 75,000 fewer acres than the Florida proposal.
More than 500 million trees were uprooted and snapped when Michael blew across the Panhandle with winds of up to 155 mph. The tree debris threatens 233 communities with wildfires in the short term — and further economic hardship in the long term.
With the timber harvest severely limited for the next four years, more than 13,000 forestry jobs are at risk, while 72 million tons of tree debris lay in the woods as fuel for forest fires, according to Karels.
He said he fears the USDA proposal set the recovery up for failure: "What you have is a whole bunch of land that doesn’t get cleanup, doesn’t get reforested," Karels said.
"It’s an economy issue of protecting 13,500 forestry jobs that are out there. That’s the major driving force of many of those counties. ... (and) you’re bringing this back to working lands again," said Karels, about the difference between the USDA proposal and the state's.
Karels pleaded his case before a sympathetic committee. Montford and George Gainer, R-Panama City, represent the eight counties most affected by Michael. The two suggested the committee write a letter to urge the USDA to accept Florida’s proposal.
"I think it would have a tremendous voice in Washington," Karels said about such a message. "A letter from the Senate Ag. Committee would be fabulous."
Once an agreement is reached, Karels estimates landowners would have to wait at least another six months before seeing any recovery money.
Writer James Call can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @CallTallahassee.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.