Saturday, June 23, 2018
Opinion

Despite veto, Florida habitats still in jeopardy

Here in Florida, shortsightedness and greed have always guided and motivated our movers and shakers, our leaders.

These folks have been responsible for paving over our grasslands, butchering our mangroves, backfilling our swamps, gouging our shorelines, damming our rivers and bulldozing our trees.

Shortsightedness and greed have made Florida, one of the nation's most biologically diverse regions, one of its most at-risk ecologically. We are second only to California in the number of animals and plants the federal government has designated as endangered or threatened.

Too many Florida leaders, political, business and otherwise, apparently do not care about the essential link between people and their impact on wild species and their natural habitats. Research shows that negative human impact on the environment includes habitat destruction, pollution and the introduction of nonnative and invasive species of flora and fauna.

Most habitat destruction, and subsequent harm to plants and animals, is the result of development that is seen, of course, as crucial to human progress.

But habitat destruction is just as damaging when it is carried out for frivolous purposes. The most prominent example of such frivolousness was in a bill introduced during the recent legislative session in Tallahassee. The zoo bill, HB 1117, dubbed the "Jurassic Park bill" by critics, would have permitted zoos and aquariums to lease state-owned lands to conduct breeding and research on animals such as rhinos, zebras, giraffes and elephants.

Many Florida residents love zoos and take their children and grandchildren to them. But few of these residents would vote to permit exotic animals to be bred and allowed to roam on our public lands. We love our wild places and species and are extremely protective of them, as was demonstrated after the zoo bill was introduced by Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Temple Terrace Republican.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill following vigorous opposition led by Defenders of Wildlife. Explaining why he rejected the bill, Scott wrote that it "lacks sufficient safeguards" to "ensure the protection of state …lands, native species and habitats."

But we should be realistic about the governor and his veto.

In the same letter, he explained that he had little trouble rejecting the bill because he believes state law already allows the governor, Cabinet and the five water management districts to lease state lands for purposes deemed constitutional.

Forget about science and safety. Is it constitutional?

Furthermore, according to the Tampa Bay Times, Harrison said Scott told him personally that the state already has the authority to lease state-owned lands to zoos. It just has not happened — which does not mean it will not happen. Why would the governor assure Harrison of this authority?

Apparently feeling triumphant, Harrison said: "I'm happy … that we've brought attention to the fact that Florida law already allows this to happen."

Then there is Larry Killmar, the Lowry Park Zoo vice president and president of the Florida Association of Zoos, who shepherded the bill to the governor's desk. During the legislative session, the Times reports, Killmar said the association will "certainly plot forward" to find state land suitable for breeding large herds of exotic animals.

While Defenders of Wildlife officials and other environmentalists hope the governor keeps herds of exotic animals off state lands, they are right to be vigilant. They believe, for example, that exotic animals roaming state lands would displace native habitats and species. They also fear that animals could escape and threaten human life, and they are concerned about the spread of nonnative seed and feed and the potential spread of disease.

Fortunately, Laurie MacDonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife, has a warning for Killmar and others: "We will be watching very closely any applications for this use."

Although the wrongheaded "Jurassic Park bill" is dead for now, Florida's legendary environmental shortsightedness is alive and kicking.

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