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Florida's wetlands left high and dry

The official name is the "Department of Environmental Protection." But the people running the agency charged with stewardship of Florida's natural heritage evidently don't get the "protection" part.

The DEP continues to resist cleaning up Florida's nutrient-impaired lakes, springs and rivers. What's a little toxic algae between friends?

The DEP sees nothing strange about putting a "shooting park" complete with clubhouse in the middle of conservation lands in Osceola County, and it has come out against regulations on greenhouse gases on the grounds that regulations might "discourage" the building of new air-poisoning coal-fired power plants in Florida.

Now, the DEP's head honchos have approved a wetlands mitigation bank permit that does not mitigate lost wetlands. The Florida Wildlife Federation (full disclosure: I'm a member of FWF's board of directors) is challenging the permit. DEP's Big Business-friendly political appointees are ignoring science — again.

The result will be less habitat, less of wild Florida, more strip malls, more parking lots, more flooding, more environmental problems for a state where the environment — rivers, springs, beaches — is our greatest attraction.

In August, the DEP decided to allow Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank to sell 425 credits (worth up to $100,000 apiece) to developers who destroy a swamp or marsh. Highlands had tried to get 688 credits from the St. Johns River Water Management District but were offered only 193. Highlands went to court and lost.

Then the Legislature refused to change the rules to suit them, rules that require detailed wetland restoration plans and a $1.5 million bond (the Carlyle Group, which owns Highlands, is worth about $159 billion), and do not allow handing out mitigation credits like Halloween candy.

So Highlands rewrote the rules. The group's lawyer, Eric Olsen, drafted a plan changing the way credits are calculated and sent it to the DEP's second-in-command, Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs Jeff Littlejohn, who pretty much swallowed it whole.

When the DEP's top wetlands scientist objected on the grounds that Highlands' scheme was detrimental to the environment and possibly illegal, she was suspended. Highlands got its permit.

Connie Bersok, now reinstated at DEP but no longer overseeing this permit application, had earned a sterling reputation as an apolitical expert in wetlands ecosystems. Yet she was suddenly accused of leaking "damaging information" to reporters: information that was public record anyway.

When this story first blew up, Littlejohn — a civil engineer by profession — said, "I don't speak wetlands ecologist." Yet instead of trusting Bersok, trained in hydrology, biology and botany, Littlejohn took the word of Highland Ranch's consultant, explaining that he'd known the guy "a long time." As it happens, Highlands' lobbyist, Ward Blakely Jr., has known DEP boss Herschel Vinyard a long time, too. That's why Blakely was hired. This is how it works in Gov. Rick Scott's Florida: Everything must be run like "a business."

The people who run the Department of Environmental Protection know little about environmental protection and apparently care even less. Neither Vinyard, whose employment background includes a shipbuilding association and BAE, a defense contractor, nor Littlejohn seems to understand the science.

The situation at the DEP illustrates the vexed Republican attitude toward facts. In a speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney mocked President Barack Obama's pledge to help lower sea levels, as if that's some outlandish old-hippie thing.

But people in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and all those urban areas along Florida's southern Atlantic coast know the sea is rising.

They're flooding more and more; they have to put in larger pumps; they're having to find money to deal with runoff that could get into the aquifer, compromising drinking water in the state's most populous area.

A George W. Bush staffer once sneeringly referred to people they had no use for as "the reality-based community." Here's reality in Florida: Our waters are dirty. Our oceans are rising. Our wetlands are disappearing. And what are we doing in Florida? Selling ourselves short and selling our future out. Insisting that up is down, war is peace, ignorance is strength.

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State," a historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Florida's wetlands left high and dry 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 5:30am]

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