Mormon church: Florida's biggest private landowner?

Mormon church: Florida residents wonder what the Mormon church will do with the nearly 400,000 acres of timber and farm land just purchased. The Mormon church paid $565 million for land in the Florida panhandle.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is about to become one of Florida's largest private landowners in a move that is drawing speculation and even concern among some conservation and environmental groups.

The St. Joe Company announced a massive deal this week to sell off nearly 400,000 acres, or most of its land holdings, to a company affiliated with the Mormon Church.

The land consists of woods and rural areas stretching across a vast portion of the Panhandle, which remains one of the lesser developed portions of the state. But much of it also lies within 15 miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

AgReserves Inc., the Utah-based taxpaying church affiliate purchasing the land from St. Joe, did not provide much detail about its plans other than to say that it will maintain timber and agricultural uses on the nearly 383,000 acres.

The decision by St. Joe to sell the land for $565 million marks a significant moment since St. Joe — a company started by the heirs of the duPont family — was once the state's largest private landowner.

St. Joe in the 1990s began developing some of its holdings into resorts and master-planned communities but the real estate market downturn during the Great Recession hurt company finances.

Much of the land was first purchased by St. Joe during the '30s and has primarily been used for timber operations.

"These are historic changes," said George Willson, a Tallahassee-based conservation consultant who once worked for St. Joe, said about the sale. "This is nearly 600 square miles of land in the Panhandle ... It's a lot of great places. They are places where people hunt and fish."

Some environmentalists are wary of what will happen next. That's because the Mormon Church already controls the Deseret Ranches, a sprawling cattle ranch located in central Florida.

Eric Draper with Audubon of Florida said that AgReserves has large herds on its existing Florida property. He said cattle ranching has much more of an environmental impact than what he called the "relatively benign" process of cutting down trees.

"The question about Deseret, the question about the church, is whether or not we will see a more intensive agricultural use for the property," Draper said. "Without Deseret or the Mormon Church saying what they will do, we have to speculate."

Willson, however, said he didn't view the sale as "anything to really be afraid of" and said the church has had "good stewardship" of watersheds, including putting up fences to keep cattle out of streams.

The transaction includes land in nine counties stretching from just outside the state Capitol to land near Panama City. It does not include land already developed by St. Joe or in areas that the company plans to develop in the "foreseeable future." St. Joe said the company plans to hold on to roughly 184,000 acres.

On its website, AgReserves quotes Gordon B. Hinckley, the president and prophet of the church who died in 2008, saying that farms represent a "safe investment where the assets of the church may be preserved and enhanced, while at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need."

That was echoed in a statement about the sale from Paul Genho, chairman of the board for AgReserves, who said the company looks to the "long term in everything we do."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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