A consortium of coastal counties met Friday in St. Petersburg to begin developing a plan to spend Florida's share of fines associated with the 2010 BP oil spill.
This consortium brings the prospect of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Florida to take action for the health of the Gulf of Mexico, the watersheds contributing to it and Florida's gulf coast economies. Thanks to the RESTORE Act, which Congress passed with bipartisan support in June, Florida has the power to decide how to direct the unprecedented resources that will come from the fines paid by those responsible for the spill.
In December, Gov. Rick Scott led by example, prioritizing Florida's economy by allocating $10 million from a Justice Department settlement with MOEX — one of the parties responsible for the Deepwater Horizon blowout — for oil spill restoration and conservation. Under the governor's direction, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection acquired two properties identified under the state's Florida Forever program: Escribano Point in Santa Rosa County and a 2,336-acre conservation easement over Seven Runs Creek in Walton County.
Both parcels are important in protecting our beaches and waterways, and both provide important buffer lands, helping to protect military missions and jobs at Eglin Air Force Base and Choctaw, which are part of Florida's nearly $70 billion-per-year defense-related economy.
These projects are great examples of smart investments of Deepwater Horizon-related penalties that will sustain and improve Florida's reputation as a tourist destination and help protect our military missions and related jobs. Escribano Point provides 5 miles of protected shoreline along Blackwater Bay and East Bay near Pensacola, which will improve water quality flowing into Pensacola Bay and ultimately the beaches vital to the tourism economy of the region. The Seven Runs Creek project protects a number of pristine seepage streams that feed into the Choctawhatchee River, an Outstanding Florida Waters resource in the Panhandle that key tourism areas like Destin and Santa Rosa Beach depend upon.
By directing settlement money to smart conservation projects, Scott and the consortium make strong statements that investments in environmental restoration and conservation can drive economic restoration and help protect military missions and jobs in Florida. County leaders working with the governor have the opportunity to create a lasting legacy for the state's gulf coast, and the governor has done well to chart a course to ensure that that opportunity is not lost.
Shelly Lakly is director of the Florida Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Patrick J. Flynn is chairman of the Florida Defense Alliance. This column was written exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.