Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Opinion

Failure at the top in protecting Florida's wetlands

Imagine Gov. Rick Scott as Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 landing on the pristine La Florida ("place of flowers") shore in the vicinity of the Caloosahatchee River.

Now, imagine Rick Juan Ponce de Leon Scott discovering the mythical fountain of youth, a source of natural spring water.

Knowing Scott as we do, we do not have to imagine what would happen next: He and his some 200 men would begin capturing the spring water and exporting it for profit. If the water failed to restore youth as marketed, the Scott team would bury the now-worthless fountain and move on to the next treasure hunt, leaving behind the detritus of human progress.

Although fictional, this scenario closely mirrors several assaults on our state's fragile environment by the Scott administration. The latest is a wetlands mitigation scheme involving a pine plantation. On one side are Highlands Ranch, formed in 2008 as a joint venture between a Jacksonville company and the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. On the other side are science, environmental stewardship and the people of Florida.

Highlands Ranch is trying to pull off a shell game. Florida's wetlands mitigation law is clear: When issued a permit, the applicant has the authority to "impact" wetlands and is required to offset those "impacts" with activities such as wetlands creation, preservation or enhancement. But Highlands Ranch is seeking wetlands mitigation credit for some land that is high and dry.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported, Department of Environmental Protection wetlands expert Connie Bersok was suspended from her job after she followed science and bucked politics in denying the permit.

The Scott administration, with its zeal to give businesses carte blanche in dealing with our natural resources, seems to hold the anachronistic view of wetlands as being peat bogs that breed mosquitoes and other vermin, dirty and dangerous places that should be drained and backfilled for development and agriculture.

The governor and his aides need a primer on the intrinsic value of wetlands. They should log on, for example, to the St. Johns River Water Management website. They would learn that wetlands benefit us by:

• Cleaning, or filtering, pollutants from surface waters.

• Storing water from storms or runoff.

• Preventing flood damage to developed lands.

• Recharging groundwater.

• Serving as nurseries for saltwater and freshwater fish and shellfish that have commercial, recreational and ecological value.

• Providing natural habitat for a variety of fish, wildlife and plants, including rare, threatened, endangered and endemic (native) species.

Why, then, would anyone — especially the state's highest elected official — tolerate dissembling when the welfare of the state's wetlands is at stake? Scott and his DEP appointees should be the lead stewards of our environment, always protecting our treasures from irresponsibility and greed.

In her bestselling book The March of Folly, historian Barbara W. Tuchman discusses a problem that describes the kind of failed leadership in Tallahassee that imperils our environment.

"A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests," Tuchman writes. "In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?"

The original writers of DEP wetlands regulations appear to have been guided by science and experience and earnestly tried to balance environmental protection with private property rights and economic development — which is certain to continue. They knew that with progress some wetlands would be impacted. For that reason, they devised a permitting system that requires developers to do as little harm as possible to wetlands and to proportionally mitigate damage when it does occur. Mutual trust was a guiding principle.

Our governor and his minions are ignoring the science available to them. And they will not hesitate to come down hard on experts such as Connie Bersok who refuse to bend the rules for powerful friends.

Conservative politics and greed are driving those in power in Tallahassee to pursue environmental policies contrary to the interests of the greatest number of Floridians. It is an example of the march of folly.

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