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Florida lawmaker accused of end run around saving sea grass

After more than 20 years, environmental groups recently convinced lawmakers to make tearing up sea grass in state aquatic preserves a crime.

But now the Florida Wildlife Federation and two other environmental groups that originally pushed for the change are asking Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the bill. They fear that if Crist allows it to become law, it will cause more sea grass destruction than ever before.

What has them concerned is an amendment that Rep. Will Kendrick, R-Carrabelle, slipped into the bill at the very end of a four-hour committee meeting April 15. Kendrick offered a pair of what he said were minor amendments, which were quickly approved without objections, and the bill passed the committee 30-0.

In describing the amendments, Kendrick said one would simply specify which sea grass species would be protected. He did not tell his fellow committee members that the amendment included far more than just a list of sea grass species.

The rest of the amendment called for the governor and Cabinet to allow private companies to create sea grass mitigation banks on state-owned land — something that has never been tried before. The companies could sell credits to developers who wanted to wipe out sea grass beds elsewhere along the coast, say for new marinas or new boating channels.

Kendrick did not return a call seeking comment on why he failed to disclose the full purpose of the amendment. But a lobbyist for the Florida Wildlife Federation said opposition to the bill had suddenly disappeared after the committee meeting.

"We thought the bill wasn't going anywhere, and then lo and behold this thing gets added on and wham-o, blam-o, you got yourself a bill," said federation lobbyist Jay Liles. The bill passed both the House and Senate without a single no vote.

Sea grasses help keep the water clean and clear, stabilize the bottom sediment, and provide habitat and food for fish, crustaceans, and shellfish. Florida has 2-million acres of sea grass beds, more than any other state. While vital to the health of the state's fishing industry, thousands of acres are chewed up by boats every year.

Thanks to Kendrick's amendment, "this bill allows the destruction of healthy, fully-functioning sea grass beds in the hope that a mitigation bank will make up for the loss of habitat," David Guest of the environmental group Earthjustice wrote to Crist last week.

Wetlands experience

The proposed sea grass mitigation banks would work much like the state's mitigation banks for wetlands, which are supposed to restore wetlands on private property and then sell the credits to developers who want to wipe out swamps and marshes for new houses and stores.

The wetlands banks, however, have not always worked out as intended.

A St. Petersburg Times investigation in 2006 found that about a quarter of Florida's wetlands mitigation banks had been granted more credits for saving dry land than for anything that helped restore wetlands. Even so, they were still selling those credits to make up for wiping out wetlands.

"Bureaucrats like banks, of course, as they give them the easy way out" when it comes to issuing permits for environmental destruction, said Curtis Kruer, a former Army Corps of Engineers biologist who has been trying since 1981 to push for greater protection for the state's sea grass beds.

Agencies' support

The state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are nevertheless supporting the bill.

"We are hoping this will not be vetoed," commission Executive Director Ken Haddad said in an e-mail. He said the commission's attorneys had reviewed the bill and "they believe any fears of requiring the (governor and Cabinet) to do sea grass mitigation is simply unfounded."

Scientists at the state's marine science lab in St. Petersburg spent three years in the early 1990s surveying the condition of Florida's sea grass beds. They found that more than 63,000 acres had seen moderate to severe scarring from boat propellers. The counties with the worst scarring were Pinellas, Monroe, Lee, Miami-Dade and Charlotte.

"Nearly all the shallow sea grass beds in Florida show damage caused by boat propellers," two of the scientists wrote in 1994.

Florida lawmaker accused of end run around saving sea grass 05/19/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 9:44am]
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