Protecting Florida's unique environment should be a priority for every honest public official in the state. It surely is a priority for an overwhelming majority of the state's voters _ those not beholden to the special interests that profit from polluting or overdeveloping the state's most fragile and valuable assets. Yet many lawmakers, doing the dirty work of the political donors who buy their favors, have launched a broad attack on the environmental laws that protect what is left of Florida's natural beauty. They would gut the state's successful Preservation 2000 program. They would undercut a promising national effort to restore the Everglades. They would toss aside a decade of bipartisan progress on environmental protection.
All the mischief is contained in one or both of the separate House and Senate bills that purport to extend Preservation 2000 for at least 10 more years. In truth, each bill is laden with meretricious changes that would debase the original intent of the program.
One such provision would make it much more costly and time-consuming to buy the land needed for the Everglades restoration project. As you might have guessed, major sugar companies and other influential property owners would profit from the change.
Another provision would require the state to sell to Walton County, at a fraction of market value, land purchased under Preservation 2000. Walton County could then use the land for recreational and development purposes, rather than for preservation.
Various other provisions in the two pieces of legislation are either irrelevant or actively anti-environment. For example, the House version would link funding to extend P2000 with a $2-billion construction and technology program for the state's universities and community colleges. The logic of wedding the state's pre-eminent preservation program to a construction bill remains elusive.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Rep. Sandy Safley, R-Clearwater, are the two primary authors of the respective Senate and House bills. Each of these Tampa Bay lawmakers likes to call himself an environmentalist, and each seems genuinely committed to extending funding for P2000 in some form. But their hands have gotten dirty on this one. True environmentalists would have fought harder to prevent their bills from being polluted by so many special-interest pleadings.
Preservation 2000, proposed in 1990 by a Republican governor and approved by a Democratic-controlled Legislature, should be above partisan politics. The preservation of Florida's natural assets is that important, and P2000 has been that successful. Almost a million acres have been purchased and protected through the program.
Much more of Florida's undeveloped land deserves similar protection. However, many Florida environmental watchdogs have become so disgusted with these flawed efforts to extend Preservation 2000 that they would prefer to see the issue set aside for another year. That is a dangerous strategy. The program expires at the end of the decade if the Legislature and governor do not act to extend it. But if this crop of lawmakers is so out of touch with the broad bipartisan spirit that led to P2000's creation, millions of Florida environmentalists may be better off waiting and hoping for more enlightened leadership a year from now.