Wetlands are fragile things, and in recent years Florida has done a horrible job of protecting them. But under Gov. Rick Scott, there are no limits to how far the state will go to change the rules to help big landowners make millions at the environment's expense. The governor and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard should explain why the state's top wetlands expert has been suspended after using science reflected in state law to deny a permit to a well-connected landowner. The administration's integrity is as at risk as the wetlands that are being ignored.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported Monday, DEP scientist Connie Bersok has been on suspension since May 11. That is two days after she added a memo to the file of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit application objecting to its request to expand its wetland mitigation credits from 193 credits to 424. That apparently didn't sit well with her boss, Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn, who had suggested this permit expansion could be part of a performance-based experiment approved by Vinyard. The only problem: State law requires a "reasonable assurance" that wetland mitigation plans will actually work.
Highlands Ranch, under the previous governor's administration, had already unsuccessfully challenged its own permit in state administrative court. Later, the exact scheme Littlejohn was trumpeting — giving Highlands Ranch more mitigation credits for land that was dry — had been rejected by the 2011 Republican-led Legislature.
Under state law, a mitigation bank can receive wetland mitigation credits by creating or restoring wetlands property. It can then sell those credits to developers elsewhere who destroy wetlands to build a project. But what Bersok objected to was that Highlands Ranch was seeking credits for dry land that would do nothing for wetland preservation. Apparently, the company was counting on politics — not science — to cash in on credits that can go for as much as $100,000 in northeast Florida.
Among Highlands Ranch's owners is the highly successful Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that once counted former President George H.W. Bush among its team.
Scott's environmental credentials are in shreds. His first year in office, the governor pushed extraordinary tax cuts onto the state's five water management districts that are charged with protecting the state's long-term water supply. And Vinyard's leadership of DEP has been marked by significant retreat on long-standing policies, including challenging water management districts on buying land they deem necessary to protect watersheds. Now it appears DEP's leaders are willing to ignore state law to grant a well-connected landowner the ability to make money off wetlands that don't even exist. If not for Bersok, it might have even gone unnoticed until years after environmental damage was done.
Bersok should be rewarded for doing her job and following state law regarding wetlands. Instead, she was punished by an administration that has a habit of banishing anyone within its ranks who fails to follow the script.