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  1. Opinion

Natural Florida needs stewards, not profiteers

People come to Florida to swim, scuba dive, fish, bird watch, kayak, boat and hike. Above, kayakers explore Big Bayou in Pasco County.
Published Jan. 5, 2013

In his 1998 book Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida, environmentalist Mark Derr wrote that "in these past one hundred years, man has reshaped and relandscaped the peninsula, leveling forests, draining the marshes. The process continues at such a rapid rate that many residents of more than a decade barely recognize the areas around their homes."

Since Derr wrote those observations, the process of destruction has gone on at breakneck speed.

Two out of three Florida residents come from other states or foreign countries, and they have no memory of our old natural beauty and too often little respect for that beauty. Most have no qualms about electing lawmakers who dismiss the intrinsic value of our environment. As a result, Derr wrote, the "tale of Florida's development often is sordid, marked by the greed of people intent on taking whatever the land offered and leaving nothing in return."

Gov. Rick Scott is an outsider, and he is proving to be no friend of the environment in almost every move he makes.

Most recently, as suggested by an article in the Tampa Bay Times, the future of Florida's natural environment was put in jeopardy when Hershel Vinyard, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, laid off 58 DEP employees who have what is described as a "history and knowledge" of the state's critical environmental problems.

It is no secret that Vinyard, like the governor, is a probusiness crusader who has little use for environmental regulations.

"The majority of positions they were eliminating are compliance and enforcement positions," Jerry Phillips, a former attorney for the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Times. "They want to essentially turn the agency over to the regulated industries."

Phillips is right, of course. In addition to the layoffs in November, Vinyard brought in several new top administrators who had been high-level consultants or engineers for companies the DEP regulates.

Prior to the layoffs, Scott appointed Juan Portuondo to oversee the South Florida Water Management District, the board ostensibly responsible for protecting South Florida's water supply and wetlands from pollution. Portunodo once operated a trash incinerator in Miami that Greenpeace and other organizations showed was "a major source of mercury emissions" that were responsible "for much of the contamination in the Everglades." He also was linked to air and water pollution in Miami-Dade, and the company was heavily fined for violations.

No matter. Scott deemed Portunodo the best person for the board.

In another travesty, DEP suspended wetlands expert Connie Bersok from her job after she bucked politics and denied a permit to Highlands Ranch, formed in 2008 as a joint venture between a Jacksonville company and the Carlyle Group, a powerful private equity firm. Highlands wanted to turn a pine plantation, which was mostly high and dry, into a business that makes up for wetlands that are destroyed by new roads and development.

If Bersok had granted the permit, the company potentially could have collected millions of dollars in wetlands "credits" that could be sold to the government and developers.

The Scott administration's assaults on the environment keep piling up. Common sense, if not a little pragmatism, should show rational lawmakers and other officials that threatening our fragile environment also threatens our economy.

They do not seem to know that our natural environment creates our tourism, our most lucrative industry, attracting nearly 90 million visitors annually who put $67 billion into the state's economy. In fact, Florida is the top travel destination in the world.

People come here to experience our parks, beaches, wetlands, woodlands and amusement venues. They come to swim, scuba dive, fish, bird watch, kayak, boat and hike.

More business leaders and state lawmakers need to realize that viable tourism is directly connected not only to our pleasant weather but also to the health of our waters, beaches, greenery and clean air.

We need leaders who respect this interconnection. They need to be stewards of the environment, not profiteers who destroy and leave nothing in return.

Contact Bill Maxwell at bmaxwell@tampabay.com.

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