Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

DEP loses top two land officials, still hasn't removed Green Swamp parcel from controversial surplus list

Two months ago, the owner of the largest remaining parcel on the state Department of Environmental Protection's controversial surplus land list asked that it be removed. So far, that hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, the top two officials in charge of the DEP's division of state lands have resigned. They quit within two weeks of each other.

However, the double departure has had no effect on the ongoing review of the surplus list, DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie said Wednesday. The remaining staff of about 130 people "is still reviewing the list, and it will be updated when that review is complete," he said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked to pull the 2,600 acres of the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County off the list in December, FWC assistant executive director Eric Sutton said.

Despite the request, the DEP has not altered the list since October, when it was cut from its original 5,000-acre size to about 4,000.

Environmental activists have speculated that the only reason Hilochee remains at risk of being sold is that without it, the list dwindles to a mere 1,200 acres, about a quarter of what the DEP had when it started.

"Take that off and what have you got left?" said Marian Ryan, a Polk County resident and Sierra Club activist. But DEP officials have denied that.

The review of the surplus lands list was being led by the executive director of the DEP's Division of State Lands, Susan Grandin, who had held that post for 15 months. But she handed in her resignation Feb. 11, noting that she needed to move back to Jacksonville to care for her ailing mother. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Grandin's resignation followed the Jan. 31 resignation of her second in command, Stephanie Leeds. A nine-year veteran of the DEP, Leeds wrote in her resignation letter that she believed "you would be better served by another more willing to fulfill the current vision for the Division of State Lands." She did not explain that statement and could not be reached for comment.

For decades, through state programs such as Florida Forever, the Legislature invested $300 million a year in buying environmentally sensitive land. During the recent economic meltdown, the Legislature cut off the funding. Some lawmakers called for getting rid of some of the land.

Last year, the DEP proposed, and the Legislature approved, including in the state budget $20 million in cash for buying land, plus up to $50 million more raised by selling off unneeded park land. To do that requires declaring the property to be surplus, no longer needed for conservation.

That prompted the DEP and other state agencies to hunt for land they could declare surplus to raise the $50 million. The Hilochee land was on the list that the wildlife agency pulled together for the DEP, put there because of problems with managing it and providing public access, Sutton said.

However, Hilochee's location in the Green Swamp made it a lightning rod for critics of the list. Protecting the swamp — the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hills­borough and Withlacoochee — is considered crucial to the protection of Florida's aquifer. The DOT has plans to use some of Hilochee for a wildlife underpass to allow bears and possibly Florida panthers to cross Interstate 4 safely.

In December the Polk County Commission requested that the DEP take the Hilochee land out of consideration. The wildlife commission agreed.

During a recent legislative committee meeting, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, blasted the entire surplus land effort as "a disaster the way it's been handled."

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

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