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  1. Opinion

In Tallahassee, a new environment for environmentalism

The acid test of leadership is not the headline you grab in your opening charge, but the work you do to sustain it over the years.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tours the area’s waterways Jan. 10 at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Vester Marine and Environmental Research Field Station in Bonita Springs, where he signed an executive order addressing problems with algae that have plagued the state.
Andrew West Fort Myers News-Press via A
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tours the area’s waterways Jan. 10 at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Vester Marine and Environmental Research Field Station in Bonita Springs, where he signed an executive order addressing problems with algae that have plagued the state. Andrew West Fort Myers News-Press via A
Published Jan. 25, 2019

In his campaign for Florida governor that coincided with plumes of toxic algae and piles of dead fish on the state's signature beaches, Ron DeSantis denounced pollution and declared himself a "Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican," championing conservation as a basic conservative value.

Due in no small part to President Donald Trump's first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, the TR comparison had lost its sizzle. Zinke channeled Roosevelt his first day on the job by donning a cowboy hat and riding up to Interior on a horse named Tonto. He then oversaw the single-largest elimination of public conservation lands in American history, dismantling the conservation legacy of Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

Florida's environmental leaders might have been forgiven for worrying that DeSantis, too, a Trump protégé with a poor environmental record in Congress, would be all hat and no cattle.

Instead, two days after his inauguration as Florida's 46th governor, DeSantis signed one of the farthest-reaching environmental orders in state history. As the rest of the nation watches federal inaction, Floridians are seeing action. DeSantis' order called for a record $2.5 billion for Everglades restoration; a harmful-algae task force; a chief science officer; and an office of resilience and coastal protection to fund and coordinate Florida's response to rising seas.

DeSantis did not stop at Executive Order No. 19-12. He has demanded that all eight board members of the powerful South Florida Water Management District step down. As governor-elect in December, DeSantis had asked the board to delay approving a $1 million sugar industry lease that would extend cane farming in an area the Legislature has identified for Everglades restoration. Former Gov. Rick Scott's water managers ignored DeSantis and approved the lease.

"The voters spoke clearly in support of our bold vision for action on the environment," DeSantis wrote in his letter asking for their resignations. "It is time for a clean reset of the leadership of the board to focus the appropriate attention on this bold vision."

DeSantis' decisiveness is classic Theodore Roosevelt. Early in his presidency, TR was determined to rein in the nation's wild-west public lands policy and even demanded the resignation of his own public lands administrator, Binger Hermann.

Of course, there's a difference between making news and making history. In her new book These Truths, historian Jill Lepore unspools a brilliant critique of the rise of story over substance, pinpointing the early 20th century professionalization of public relations and political spin as one turning point when America lost its way, abandoning ideas for photo ops.

The acid test of leadership is not the headline you grab in your opening charge, but the work you do to sustain it over the years. That is the challenge now facing Gov. DeSantis. Just as Theodore Roosevelt worked continually to preserve national lands from the first wildlife refuge at Florida's Pelican Island in 1903 to saving Washington's Mount Olympus on his way out of the White House in 1909, the governors who helped build Florida's environmental legacy dedicated years and hard-won political capital to accomplish it.

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Against stiff resistance, Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew methodically championed the progressive land and water laws enacted by the Florida Legislature in the 1970s. During the following decade, Bob Graham sparked the nation's imagination to save the Everglades, then spent his two terms as governor and three as U.S. Senator to ensure their restoration. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush steadily pursued and ultimately amassed a record $1 billion in environmental land purchases over his eight years in office that ended in 2007.

What will count for DeSantis won't be the horse he rode in on, but the one that carries him across the finish line.

Journalist Cynthia Barnett is an environmental fellow and historian David Colburn is director at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service.