Environmentalists on Session: It could have been worse

Mar 16, 2012

Environmental activists say this isn’t the worst legislative session the state’s ecosystem has seen but it’s certainly not the best either. Regan McCarthy reports environmentalists are raising concerns about a number of measures headed for the governor’s desk.

So how did the environment fair this legislative session?

“It really didn’t do very well, at all. We have a serious problem in Florida that the legislature is beholden to specials interests. Whose interests are their corporate financial interests in keeping business as it is and not modernizing as it should to protect the public interests.”

That’s according to EarthJustice attorney David Guest. Guest says one concerning measure coming out of this session is a bill that repeals a 2010 law requiring septic tank inspections in most of the state. Lawmakers say the law mandated sometimes unnecessary and expensive inspections, but Guest says the environmental impact of repealing the law is even more costly.

“Septic tank pollution is a really major problem in Florida waterways. For example, if you look at the estuaries around the state you’ll notice everybody has seen that there’s much more severe and long lasting red time tide than we have seen, ever. That’s a significant problem for the economy. Because the Red Tide ends up chasing off tourists. People lose their jobs. There’s hotel workers, there’s restaurant people….”

And Guest says lawmakers only allocated about 8-million dollars for the state’s Florida forever project, which helps to buy and preserve state lands. Guest says that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the funding the program used to receive and he says that’s not good policy.

“The time to buy land is when its cheap. Land is cheaper now than its been in a decade.”

On the other hand, Audubon Florida Wildlife Conservation Director, Julie Wraithmell, says she’s glad the program got something in a tight budget year.

“While those were modest, they’re an important signal that they remain core to Florida’s identity and priorities.”

Wraithmell says a measure that’s worrying her would let ungulates, or hoofed animals, and birds move onto land leased from the state by organizations like zoos that are, for example, seeking to expand breeding programs.

“While who doesn’t like zebras and giraffes, at the same time those lands were acquired with public dollars for the purpose of conserving Florida wildlife. And the way the bill was structured is it actually pits the conservation of exotic endangered animals against native endangered animals.

The bill’s author, Representative Shawn Harrison, a Republican from Tampa, says the measure would offer the same opportunities to groups hoping to encourage the breeding of endangered animals native to the state – though Wraithmell points out there aren’t really any endangered Floridian ungulates. Deer, for example, don’t need help. Harrison also says the cabinet and Fish and Wildlife Commission would have to give approval before state land could be leased.

“The locations that would be suitable for this type of activity are already disturbed locations. They’re already places in the state where the state is leasing its own lands for cattle and horse grazing operations, so it’s not like anyone is going to be going out into pristine wilderness or into wetlands or anything like that and using that sort of land.”

But Wraitmell says the bill’s language isn’t very specific.

“The bill does not restrict itself to simply those acres that are already being leased to cattle. It opens up all of Florida’s conservation land for that potential use. The other thing is because it allows the construction of facilities, so that could mean breeding and veterinary areas as well as roads, that leads us to believe that this isn’t  a temporary use of these lands.”

And Wraithmell points out that often open grasslands that might appear to be unused are actually functioning as an important habitat environment for Florida animals. Wraithmell says she intends to ask Florida Governor Rick Scott to veto the measure when it reaches his desk. It is joining a number of other environmental proposals headed his way.