Florida has a lot of natural treasures, not the least of which is the fabled River of Grass the Everglades a unique natural treasure that almost tops the list of areas that should be protected. But in a state run so completely by pro-business Republicans, it should surprise no one that the idea of actually preserving Florida's green spaces almost always takes a back seat to the almighty dollar.
For years the environmental lobby has been playing defense, trying to slow incursions into the Everglades and prevent laws that would weaken the state's ability to protect wetlands. There have been some successes: On a national level, nearly all of the state's congressional representatives have vowed to fight oil drilling off Florida's coast, though a study of the resources there made its way into the recently passed energy bill. And the state has undertaken an ambitious land acquisition program called Florida Forever.
Nevertheless, there's no end in sight to this battle, and the environment has very few friends in Tallahassee. What follows is a conversation with the Sierra Club's John Hedrick, who specializes in growth management and monitors state government in Tallahassee.
OW: Tell me a little bit about this year's legislative session. Generally speaking, what overall tone did the legislature take toward the environment?
Hedrick: I think the overall tone toward the environment was not good, generally speaking. [To] those of us dealing with it, [the goal] was to try and prevent more damage than actually occurred out there. Some fairly significant damage, in our view, did occur with things passing like the growth management act [which environmentalists contend didn't do enough to slow urban sprawl].
OW: Describe the lowlights.
Hedrick: Well, they also had bills that extended the [environmental permitting] process. Environmental permitting is done everywhere else in the state, except in northwest Florida. They extended … that for another five years, and the reason that's damaging is there is a tremendous amount of growth in the Panhandle, and to not have it subject to the same, stricter permitting requirements that are happening in the rest of the state is a travesty. There also was this thing that passed, I believe, that created several different transportation authorities. … We believe those are damaging because, obviously, you're building a lot more along your highways, through lands that don't have highways, you're simply opening up more lands for [development].
OW: A couple of years ago the Turnpike Authority managed a power grab that enabled it to build roads through land based on long-term projected growth, and the argument against it was that would just bring more growth in and encourage sprawl.
Hedrick: Right, and some of it's been acted on. … But it certainly gives the authority there to do that type of stuff. I remember the bill exactly.
OW: What was the best bill that came out of the legislature this year?
Hedrick: Boy. That is a hard one … most of the time we were fending off stuff. For example … a number of us were actively involved in fighting the different bills that would've restricted the citizens initiative process out there. That has a direct impact on things like the Florida Hometown Democracy initiative [a proposed constitutional amendment that would give voters a direct say in local comprehensive land use changes, which are now approved by local governing bodies], which many of us support, that had to be pursued because the legislature has just failed … with growth management.
OW: Gov. Jeb Bush also signed a rather complicated law that made it easier for developers to pave over wetlands by removing the stricter federal government from the equation. I wanted you to describe that a little bit more; talk about what that did.
Hedrick: Well, that's very dangerous. … What's happening is kind of a two-pronged assault by developers at the federal and the state level. … But the trouble is the state oversight is much less than what the federal government would otherwise do. The feds have said originally that they weren't going to allow that to happen, but now the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which handles wetlands permitting for the federal government] is making noises like they're going to try and do a turnaround on that issue, as I've seen in other articles elsewhere. … At least [before] the threat of the stronger federal authority in rules and regulations meant things were not going to get as bad as otherwise they might have.
OW: Gov. Bush has talked a lot about growth management since he took office in 1999. How would you rate his efforts so far? Has growth management reasonably improved during his tenure? Has it become worse?
Hedrick: It's gotten worse over his tenure, in terms of trying to speed up funding for a lot of different road projects … to the just now-signed weakening of the growth management law, to the way their whole administration works, the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Environmental Protection. The enforcement of the regulations has not been happening in the same way as it did previously. … Just those alone, taken as a whole, mean the state is worse off … than it was when his term began. He's obviously not the only one at fault for that, the legislature [is also] because they've gone along with this stuff and obviously they're direct participants as well.
OW: What's the silver lining? What's the state's best hope for preserving some semblance of reasonable growth in the next 10 years?
Hedrick: The state is reaching the limits of … shall we say, the carrying capacity of how many people can live in Florida [based on the supply of available water], without them doing some extreme things like water desalinization or shipping water from one part of Florida or elsewhere in the country [or] things like that. We just literally are not going to be able to pack more people into Florida. So I think it's those types of silver linings that are going to help people, along with passage and we do believe it will pass of the Florida Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment, once it gets on the ballot. The hard part is getting it on the ballot. Once it's there, there's no real doubt the public is going to pass it. Those are the things that are going to bring a much better semblance of a better community to Florida.