1. Environment

State offers details on plan to move officers from wildlife to environmental protection

If approved by the Legislature, it would involve moving a single unit, not a wholesale transfer.
Published Jan. 26, 2019

After some initial confusion, state officials have at last clarified what Gov. Ron DeSantis meant during his first week in office when he called for transferring state wildlife officers to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Instead of moving all of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's sworn officers over to the environmental agency, just 13 will make the switch.

Those 13 work for the wildlife agency's Environmental Crimes Unit, which Wildlife Commission spokesman Robert Klepper said handles "criminal commercial environmental violations such as illegal domestic/commercial/construction waste dumping, dredge and fill, littering, mangrove cutting, oil spill issues and shoreline alteration." They do not cover violations of the state's game laws.

Those 13 are just a small sliver of the wildlife agency's 853 positions for gun-carrying officers patrolling the state's fields, swamps, forests and waterways. Their unit has been part of the Wildlife Commission's law enforcement arm for about seven years.

In 2012, a study on consolidating environmental law enforcement duties recommended transferring the Environmental Crimes Unit from the Department of Environmental Protection to the state Wildlife Commission, and the Legislature passed a bill to do so. Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.

Those officers were supposed to "investigate crimes and violations that generally have a negative impact on Florida's environment, including the improper storage, transport, or disposal of hazardous waste; destruction or illegal filling of wetlands; or the burying or burning of prohibited materials," according to a bill analysis. Putting them under the Wildlife Commission would result in "a streamlined agency" with improved response times for complaints and a lighter burden on local law enforcement agencies.

So why swap them back again? Same reason.

PRIOR COVERAGE: DeSantis proposes moving wildlife cops.

"We're going to do some reorganization to be more effective protecting the environment," DeSantis said during a news conference where he unveiled his plans for restoring the Everglades, combating harmful algae blooms and coping with rising sea levels. He signed an executive order that offered no details on the swap, except that it would "align resources focused on environmental protection and ensure strong enforcement of Florida's environmental laws."

PRIOR COVERAGE: DeSantis unveils sweeping proposal for Florida's environmental woes.

Initially officials with the two departments were unable to offer details about the swap, and a DeSantis spokesman did not answer questions on the governor's proposal. DeSantis' proposal will require legislative approval, just like the one seven years ago.

A swap such as the one the governor has proposed is unusual, in part because the two agencies' approach to enforcing environmental laws could not be more different.

The Wildlife Commission's officers have made a series of high-profile busts recently, including one last year aimed at alligator poachers that required operating an undercover alligator farm for two years. Meanwhile, thanks to Scott's anti-regulatory push, the environmental agency dropped pursuing polluters with fines and court action, instead focusing on helping violators get into compliance with state law.

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Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.


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