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On Earth Day, Environmentalists Optimistic About Fla. Legislative Session

volunteers in Hudson Park
Jessica Palombo

Today is Earth Day, the annual environmental-protection celebration now in its 44th year. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) noted the occasion with a climate change hearing in Miami Beach, while environmental advocates kept a close eye on the state Legislature.

On Tuesday morning, scientists and South Florida officials gathered in Miami to tell a congressional panel what the Sunshine State is doing to offset the effects of sea level rise. Nelson led the discussion.

“We best get about the process of recognizing what is happening all around us,” he said. “Now, we’re going to have to face it head on, which is the purpose of the hearing.”

Sustainable Big Bend volunteer Kathryn Gibson says, “I’m really delighted to hear that he’s actually addressing these issues.”

Gibson and others were surveying Crawfordville’s Hudson Park on Tuesday, planning where to place vendors for their April 26 Green Living Expo.  

Another volunteer, Lynn Artz, says she admires South Florida’s regional cooperation in addressing sea level rise. But in smaller, less wealthy coastal counties, she sees little initiative.

“Unfortunately a lot of our leaders aren’t leading in this area, and it’s more the grassroots people like us, Sustainable Big Bend, that is really trying to catalyze action,” she says.

Elsewhere in the county, Wakulla Springs Alliance Chairman Ron Piasecki was keeping an eye on legislative budget action on his TV.

“I’m watching the Florida Channel. They’ve got the Senate appropriations,” he said Tuesday morning.

Piasecki says he’s concerned about a bill the House passed that makes community support organizations like Friends of Wakulla Springs go up for legislative renewal every five years.

“If you were going to donate to an endowment, you may have second thoughts if you think that organization may be canceled by the Legislature,” he says.

And the piece of legislation at the top of environmental advocates’ watch lists is the bill intended to create a framework for springs protection and fund their cleanup through a real estate transaction tax. But the percent of that tax revenue the bill earmarks for springs dropped Monday from around 37 percent to just above 5 percent.

Florida Wildlife Federation lawyer Preston Robertson was at the Capitol for budget talks Tuesday.

“The final number you will know probably on the last day of the session,” he says. “Nothing is dead until the hanky drops.”

He says any springs bill would be good, but the original springs bill was great. He hopes lawmakers will put back in drop-dead deadlines for pollution reduction and language prohibiting industries from harming the springs at all, rather than the current directive to refrain from “significant harm”—a standard that’s harder to prove.

The Wildlife Federation was among the groups that campaigned for a proposed constitutional amendment setting aside a third of real estate transaction tax money for conservation. Water and Land Legacy Campaign Manager Will Abberger says that’s the only way to ensure future funding for environmental protection—and voters will get to decide this November.

“Assuming that we’re successful with that, and we believe we will be, then in the 2015 legislative session we’ll be working with legislators,” he says, to help them decide where to allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars expected.

For now, advocates continue watching this session’s final week and a half with cautious optimism.