Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Legislature provides cash for possible sweetheart deal

It looks like a sweetheart deal, though it's not clear yet who in the Legislature helped set it up.

A 436-acre parcel approved Tuesday by the Cabinet for purchase was the only one considered by the state under a $3.2-million special legislative appropriation for land acquisition.

The governor and Cabinet without discussion agreed to pay $1,975,000 for a conservation easement on 436 acres owned by Boothco Hansford LLC, which is managed by Tallahassee developer Hurley Booth. Appraisals supported the purchase price for the deal.

The state won't actually own the land, called Bailey's Mill, and there will be only limited public access. The state is paying Booth not to develop the property, although construction of a single home of up to 7,500 square feet -- which is a small mansion -- will be allowed.

Cattle will not be allowed on the property but trees can be cut down and sold in areas where timber operations have occurred in the past, DEP Secretary Michael Sole told the Cabinet on Tuesday.

A site review found that 40 percent was improved pasture and former watermelon fields. Still, the state Acquisition and Restoration Council in April voted to recommend purchase by the governor and Cabinet -- though the proposal was withdrawn by Booth from further consideration before it could be ranked against other parcels on the Florida Forever list awaiting state purchase.

DEP Secretary Michael Sole told reporters on Tuesday that there was discussion in the Legislature last year about setting aside money specifically for Bailey's Mill property or for other conservation easements but he said he didn't know why.

"There was reference to Bailey's Mill historically for acquisition, but when the appropriation act came out it was just, 'You get $3.2 million for acquisition of state land' " with no designation of property to be purchased, Sole said.

DEP spokeswoman Amy Graham said Booth contacted DEP shortly after the 2008-09 budget was announced. Booth did not respond to messages left for him at his Tallahassee office.

"He indicated he had a parcel that he felt was worthy of the state's purchase," Graham said. "And we began negotiations with him knowing that we had this specific appropriation and we proceeded to put it through the process to confirm that it met the criteria for acquisition, which it did."

The Legislature in 2008 approved $300 million in bonding authority for Florida Forever in addition to the $3.2 million appropriation being used to buy Booth's property. This year, the Legislature refused to provide any money for the state land-buying program for the first time since 1990.

Booth was involved in a controversial purchase at Letchworth Mounds in 2005. The state purchased from the Conservation Fund an option to buy land owned by Booth surrounding Letchworth Mounds.

The Cabinet agreed to buy 109 acres plus a conservation easement on 1,281 acres around the existing park only after then-Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to drop his objections. Bush initially said the $4.7-million purchase price was too steep.

The state Acquisition and Restoration Council earlier this year was told that the Division of Historical Resources said there are no archaeological sites of historical significance on the Bailey's Mill property. But DHR officials did note that the tract could buffer and protect Letchworth Mounds State Park less than a mile away.

A report by DEP's Division of State Land said Bailey's Mill contained no "strategic habitat" as identified by state wildlife officials but there was potential habitat for endangered wood storks. The site was ranked "medium" for water quality protection by DEP.

Under the deal with Booth, school children will be allowed to visit up to 12 times a year. Researchers will be able to visit up to six times a year if the request is submitted 30 days in advance.

Sole said money remaining from $3.2 million appropriation for land acquisition won't be spent to buy other land. That's because land purchased outside of the Florida Forever program do not receive the higher level of protection from resale as lands purchased within Florida Forever, he said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top Florida wildlife officer takes over at Highway Safety

Jones, right, prepares to pose for a photo with Cabinet members today.

Col. Julie Jones says there will continue to be a strong public safety "hook" as she leaves the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as its top law enforcement officer to take over as head of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The governor and Cabinet voted unanimously today to appoint Jones to lead Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the Florida Highway Patrol. She has been director of law enforcement at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission since 2002 and had worked at the agency for 30 years beginning in the 1970s in a temporary position.

"I think the things I've been able to do at Fish and Wildlife -- continuing to move forward and create a vision -- I'll be able to do that at Highway Safety," she said. "The troopers are very interested, I think, about someone coming in with a little different perspective."

Jones' capability and leadership are well known within state government, Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said.

"I just wanted to commend Julie for the outstanding service she has already given to the state of Florida," Bronson said.

Jones said being one of the first environmental investigators in the 1980s was a highlight of her job along with helping lead the merger of law enforcement units from the former Florida Marine Patrol and the former Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.

Her law enforcement division also has had bitter disagreements in the past with some commercial net fishing supporters since a state Constitution amendment was adopted in 1994 restricting the use of gill nets in nearshore Florida waters.

"That was a highlight in that it was a difficult problem (that was) overcome with a lot of stakeholders," Jones told "Yes there are still some folks not happy. There are always going to be some folks not totally happy."

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ecologist Bruce Means honored, describes NW Fla. biodiversity

Northwest Florida is a biological hotspot because it stands in the crossroads of different ecological areas and because of the Apalachicola River, Ecologist Bruce Means told a packed auditorium last week.

Means, president and executive director of the Coastal Plains Institute and an adjunct professor at Florida State University, was honored by the Tallahassee Scientific Society for his more than 40 years of research and work to conserve biodiversity in the Florida Panhandle.

He told the audience at the state's R.A. Gray Building that the region is one of six biological "hotspots" in the United States because of the high number of plant and animal species. Means, who has a doctorate in ecology from FSU, received the Tallahassee Scientific Society's annual gold medal for 2009.

The region has more than 2,100 native plant species, six of the world's 10 families of salamanders and the highest number of turtle species found anywhere in the nation, Means said.

Drying ponds that are less than one-tenth of an acre in size can contain up to 27 species of amphibians. The region's southern temperate hardwood forests contain 35 species of trees, the most of any forest type in the United States and Canada.

The Panhandle has high biodiversity for several reasons, including its warm climate. But the most important reasons are that it lies between the Florida peninsula and continental North America and because the Apalachicola River drains the southern Appalachian mountains.

The Apalachicola River is Florida's largest river and has allowed species to migrate from the mountains to North Florida, Means said.

"It has been a highway of dispersal for thousands of years," he said, "for plants and animals to migrate through deeply incised valleys and gullies along the river system down into Florida during glacial periods, then back up north during the interglacial periods like we have now -- but leaving outliers here like in the ravines especially along the Apalachicola River."

Joseph Travis, dean of FSU's College of Arts and Sciences and the Robert O. Lawton professor of biological sciences, introduced Means to the audience, recalling how Means did most of the work on a research paper that they co-authored soon after Travis arrived in Tallahassee.

"I'm pretty convinced my career would not have had the start it did, and therefore would not have unfolded as it did, without the generosity of Bruce Means -- his time his energy and his knowledge," he said. "He's done it time and again with my graduate students and lots of other people's graduate students.

"He's an invaluable resource for all of us. And he shares his knowledge and gives of his time without hesitation. I can think of no stronger praise than to say I wish I were like Bruce. I really do."

Means is author of "Stalking the Plumed Serpent" and co-author of "Priceless Florida" and "Florida Magnificent Wilderness" among other works.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Friday, September 25, 2009

A big TV weekend with "Big Cypress" and "National Parks"

After they produced "Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida" in 2004, renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher joked with cinematographer Elam Stoltzfus that next time, they'd have to film in Butcher's backyard.

And they did just that, to produce "Big Cypress Swamp: The Western Everglades," which airs this weekend on PBS television stations across Florida. Check your local listings or click here.

Big Cypress is part of a twin act on television this weekend for nature lovers. PBS also will begin airing Ken Burn's series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" on Sunday at 8 p.m.

Butcher, who lives in Big Cypress Swamp, has made his mark with the expansive black-and-white photography of the Everglades and Big Cypress. His son was killed in 1986 by a drunk driver, leading Butcher to escape to the swamps of South Florida for solitude and his photography.

Stoltzfus, owner of Live Oak Productions, lives in the Blountstown near the Apalachicola River. With Butcher, he also produced 2005's produced "Apalachicola River: An America Treasure."

Big Cypress National Preserve, Stoltzfus said, is his second home away from the Florida Panhandle. And he said he hopes his production along with Butcher of "Big Cypress" will make people interested that area of Southwest Florida.

"It's a tract of land that is really well-protected for the animals and rare plants," he said. "Fakahatchee Strand is where you have the ghost orchids, bromeliads and panthers."

"It's a story that not that many people know about or not that many people choose to even go out there," he said. "We are trying to provide, as (my wife Esther) coined, an 'armchair experience' of going into the swamp without having to go there."

(Photos courtesy of Live Oak Productions. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Former Florida state forester is remembered

John M. Bethea, Florida's chief forester from 1970 until his retirement in 1987, was recognized for his contributions to forestry after his death this week.

Bethea was an early advocate of the urban forest concept and led innovations in Florida's forest management, including the use of prescribed burning to improve forest ecology and wildlife habitat.

"Prescribed burning is front and center at the Division of Forestry . . . and John had a great deal to do with that," said Earl Peterson, who was head of the Florida Division of Forestry from 1992 to 2003

He described Bethea as a "professional's professional" who always wanted the best from himself and others. But he also was known for his downhome sayings, or "Bethea-isms" as his co-workers called them, such as "You got to dance with who you brung," Peterson said.

Bethea was born near Cedar Creek north of Sanderson in Baker County and received a bachelor's of science in forestry at the University of Florida in 1941, when he joined the Florida Forest and Park Service. After leaving to serve in World War II, he returned in 1946. He eventually won a Golden Smokey award for sustained forest leadership, was inducted into the American Foresters Hall of Fame and was a leader within the National Association of State Foresters.

"Our current state forests owe a great deal to John's vision and leadership," Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in a statement. "He was a man of great talent and energy whose entire professional career was spent developing and creating the forest system that millions of residents and visitors alike enjoy today on a daily basis."

In 2001, the state acquired nearly 38,000 acres in northern Baker County and the Legislature honored him by naming it the John M. Bethea State Forest. Peterson said Bethea was unable to travel to the dedication for health reasons so he and Bronson filmed a video at the forest and held a dedication ceremony in Tallahassee.

"He was very very appreciative of the fact that the state, the Department (of Agriculture and Consumer Services), and the Division respected him enough -- admired him enough -- to do that for him," Peterson said. "He was very honored by it."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Florida rural lands rule withstands farm groups' challenge

Florida farm groups supported the Rural Land Stewardship Act in 2001 because they said it would preserve agriculture while helping the economies of rural communities.

The bill created a pilot program that allowed landowners with between 50,000 and 250,000 acres to set aside land for conservation and agriculture in exchange for the ability to develop new towns consisting of homes, shopping centers, offices and industries.

The Legislature passed the bill in 2001 and amended the law in 2004 to remove limits on the amounts of land that it could apply to. But now those same farm groups that supported the bill in 2001 are on the losing side of a legal challenge to a Department of Community Affairs rule that implements the legislation.

The DCA rule requires local governments not only to get their local Rural Lands Stewardship programs approved but they also re required to request approval for each of those new towns. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Land Council and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation challenged the rule, saying the law didn't require the additional comprehensive plan changes for those new towns.

"The process was supposed to be an incentive process," Tom Beck, a former state planning chief who testified for the farm and business groups during an administrative hearing, told today. "And what this does -- having a second amendment (approval process) -- it greatly increases the time that the landowner has to go through to get final approval."

Administrative Law Judge Donald R. Alexander on Sept. 14 determined that the proposed rule does not exceed the department's rule-making authority as the challengers claimed. He said the rule is consistent with the law, which he said sought to protect rural lands and further the principles of "rural sustainability."

DCA held off on writing rules for the program when it was established as a pilot in 2001. But DCA began working on a rule after the 2004 changes led some landowners with hundreds of thousands of acres to inquire about getting development approval under the state law, according to Alexander's final order.

Collier County had a rural lands program that was adopted in 1999. However, DCA in 2007 said the Collier County program was directing development toward agricultural lands rather than preserving them.

DCA began to hold rule-making hearings that same year and adopted the rule on Dec. 19, 2008. The legal challenge was filed on Jan. 9.

The department says the law maintains the economic value of rural land while controlling urban sprawl and protecting natural resources and the state's agricultural economy.

"This ruling is an important one for the state," DCA Secretary Tom Pelham said. "The Rural Lands Stewardship Area Program can play an important role in conserving agricultural and environmental lands."

For more information on DCA's Rural Lands Stewardship Area Program, go to

To see the judge's ruling and other legal documents, go to the Division of Administrative Hearings web site at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Enviro group joins in criticism of PSC

One of the most active environmental groups before the Florida Public Service Commission says recent controversies show the panel is overly influenced by utilities and lobbyists, including former PSC staff and commissioners.

In the midst of electricity rate requests by Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & LIght Co., three agency employees have been fired for exchanging text-messaging information with utility employees. A PSC staffer resigned earlier this month after disclosing that he and his wife went to a party hosted by a FP&L official.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, and Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, say they will file bills to change how PSC members are selected. Gov. Charlie Crist is opposing the rate requests and has hinted that he may not reappointment commissioners who support them.

But representatives of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy today said concerns about the PSC should extend beyond the rate requests.

The Knoxville, Tenn.-based group is challenging energy conservation goals proposed by seven of the Florida's largest utilities. And the group also opposes requests by Progress Energy and FP&L to recover costs for four planned new nuclear power units in advance of construction.

Group representatives said they face teams of attorneys and former PSC commissioners Susan Clark and J. Terry Deason working for utilities and against policies that would improve energy efficiency. The PSC, the group said, allows greater leeway for utilities to present their experts during hearings while cutting off their witnesses and restricting public comment.

"I think there is something fundamentally flawed with the fact the power companies are able to use rate-payer dollars to in essence advocate for a position against what we think are against their long term interests," said Stephen Smith, executive director of SACE.

Utilities, he said, "are taking hostile positions against making the system more efficient in Florida because they are concerned about lost revenues." requested an interview with PSC Chairman Matthew Carter. In response, the PSC issued a statement by Carter stating that all commissioners had taken an oath to uphold the public trust.

"It's disheartening to see our agency, with its important mission, in jeopardy of losing the public's trust when organizations, such as (the) Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, make allegations -- being vetted through the media--which are unproven," Carter said. "Our record reflects our commitment as public servants to continue our good work for Florida's residents, who need our services, and for the utilities that need our oversight."

Deason and Clark did not return telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

A Progress Energy spokeswoman said the company is proposing to double its conservation goals but she did not address the broader concerns raised by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy about the PSC and utilities.

An FP&L spokesman said the utility at no time sought to inappropriately influence anyone. All lobbying expenditures come out of shareholder profits, not the base electric rates, said Mayco Villafana, FP&L spokesman.

The utility deals with a lot of complex issues and hires experts to advise and represent it, he said.

"Florida administrative law is a very narrow specialized area so it's just common sense that utilities and intervenors would seek to hire from the small pool of experts," Villafana said.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Group formed to help resolve tri-state water dispute

By Bruce Ritchie

A diverse coalition of groups within Alabama, Florida and Georgia is trying to encourage a discussion of water issues that have divided residents of the three states in the past.

The states have been fighting in federal court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system. Alabama and Georgia want water held in reservoirs for cities, recreational users, agriculture and industry while Florida says it wants to protect fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry around Apalachicola Bay.

Representatives of several interest groups have formed what they're calling the ACF Stakeholders to find "equitable solutions" that ensure the river basin is a "sustainable resource for current and future generations."

Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper environmental group said he thinks the ACF Stakeholders can help accomplish what the governors of the three states have been unable to do -- reach an agreement.

"The answer is an emphatic yes," he said. "It wouldn't be hard for this group to do more than they've done. As far as I know, they have yet to make any real headway toward any type of settlement."

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said DEP wishes the group well but added that it's too early to tell what role the group will play. DEP welcomes hearing about any potential solutions to the water dispute, department spokesman Doug Tobin said in an e-mail.

The governors of the three states were unable to resolve their differences during private talks in 2007 and through public negotiations under an interstate compact from 1997 to 2003. The states have been divided over how to define a drought and how much water to hold back in reservoirs during those dry periods.

In July, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson sided with Florida and Alabama on a major issue, ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally had been allowing water in the Lake Lanier federal reservoir north of Atlanta to be used by Georgia cities. That's prompted something of a political crisis in Georgia, where Gov. Sonny Perdue has tapped Georgia Power chief Mike Garrett to lead a group in his state to work on a solution.

Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley have asked Crist to meet to discuss river issues but Crist has not responded.

A year ago, representatives of eight waterway interest groups first met to discuss ways to give stakeholders a voice in the process. The groups were Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the Lake Lanier Association, the Tri-Rivers Waterway Development Association, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Southern Nuclear (part of the Southern Co.), the Gwinnett County, Ga. water utility and former water utility managers from the Georgia cities of La Grange and Columbus.

"The intention was for it to be a broad-based stakeholder group and try to get beyond the litigation and all of the mired-down positions that we have gotten into because of the litigation," Tonsmeire said.

Apalachicola Bay seafood workers have been at opposite ends of the basin and political spectrum from homeowners and boating interests on Georgia's Lake Lanier. But Wilton Rooks of the Lake Lanier Association said he thinks all sides can find common ground.

"There has been a lot of finger-pointing in the past -- That's what we are trying to get away from," he said.

"Our challenge is to try to find comon ground -- not figure out who has the biggest boxing gloves in a polarized fight," he said.

The ACF Stakeholders group is recruiting governing board members from each of the four basins within the river system. The board will hold its first plenary session during the second week of December, according to a news release from the stakeholders group. For more information, go to the group's Web site at

(Map courtesy of ACF Stakeholders. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Four years after buying back oil lease, state considers allowing drilling

In 2005, Gov. Jeb Bush and members of the Cabinet proclaimed victory for Florida when they agreed to pay Coastal Petroleum Co. $12.5 million not to abandon its leases for drilling oil off the Gulf of Mexico.

With Florida leaders now deciding whether to debate reopening state waters to drilling, some who were involved in the Coastal Petroleum issue say there are lessons from that dispute four years ago that should be revisited.

In 1947, the state granted leases to Coastal for exploration and production rights in state waters within 10 miles of the Gulf Coast. The lease extended from Franklin County on the Florida Panhandle to Pasco County north of Tampa.

Coastal Petroleum's drilling operations ended in the 1970s with a series of dry holes, according to legal documents. But with a state ban on oil drilling approved in 1990, Coastal filed suit against Florida saying that the ban constituted a taking of its royalty and leasing interests.

Coastal and Florida battled it out in court, with Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith ruling in 2002 that the company was owed nothing because an earlier settlement agreement required it to comply with environmental laws before the state could issue a drilling permit.


But certain owners of royalty interests in Coastal leases continued to sue. So when the Cabinet agreed in 2005 to pay $12.5 million for the leases, Gov. Jeb Bush praised the resolution as "incredible." Then-Attorney General Charlie Crist and other Cabinet members voted in favor.

"This landmark settlement agreement eliminates the potential for drilling activities in state waters under lease -- without the prospect of protracted and unpredictable courtroom battles," Bush said in a statement released after the Cabinet meeting. "Taxpayers are protected from hundreds of millions of dollars in takings claims while Florida's waters and beaches are safeguarded from the threat of coastal drilling."

Today, drilling supporters say that oil production will provide jobs and state revenue and can be done safely without harming the environment. Supporters include Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Petroleum Council.

But opponents say no one has proven that drilling can be done safely, or that there is actually oil and gas to be found in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, as reflected by the Coastal legal fight.

Crist now says he supports offshore drilling if the coast can be protected -- but he hasn't endorsed any proposal that shows how that can be done. He opposed a House bill earlier this year that would have allowed drilling within three miles of the coast, but he has said he supports taking up the drilling issue again in a special session this fall.


Monica Reimer, a former assistant state attorney general who represented environmental groups in the Coastal Petroleum case, said the current debate over oil drilling feels like the Coastal issue all over again, with companies in the future again positioning themselves to sue the state over new leases that would be issued. Coastal Petroleum, she said, was never about drilling, it was about litigating.

"This story they (drilling supporters) are telling has such a feel of a con game," said Reimer, an attorney in the Earthjustice law firm's Tallahassee office. "The idea suddenly billions of dollars will be produced -- it doesn't work that way. If it did, we would have been an oil state a long time ago."

But Bob Angerer, chairman of the board for Coastal Petroleum and parent company Coastal Caribbean Oils and Minerals, said the reserves off Florida's coast are enormous -- as suggested in a 1999 article in Oil and Gas Journal -- but they were not drilled because the state would not grant permits. He said the dispute and Florida's drilling ban were shortsighted.

"All it took for people to change their minds was to see the price of gasoline at $4.50 (per gallon)," he said. "People say it was the housing market that ruined our economy. I beg to differ. It was the price of energy -- which affects everything -- that brought the economy down."


David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said he doesn't think the state's legal fight with Coastal means that drilling should not be allowed -- only that areas should not be leased as they were by the state in 1947. He pointed out that Coastal originally had a lease that provided mineral rights in various Florida waterways.

Those mineral rights led to Coastal's initial lawsuit in 1968 after the Corps of Engineers, at Florida's request, denied the company's permit request to explore for limestone in Lake Okechobee. Coastal was unable to secure investments to drill for oil after 1977.

"A lesson from Coastal is you don't want to lease giant swaths of all state waters at one time to one entity," Mica said. "What it did was monopolize a lot of the waters that were potentially resource-rich to one entity who for a long time did not have resources or had limited resources to do anything."

Mark Ferrulo, an environmental activist who has fought offshore drilling in Florida efforts since 1991, said the dispute points to the influence that money is having in the current drilling debate. He is director of Progress Florida, which opposes drilling.

Between the start of April and the end of July, Energy Associates spent $234,000 on legal work and lobbying and the Florida Legislature, according to the Miami Herald. The group also has contributed $35,000 to Republicans and $20,000 to Democrats.

The Coastal Petroleum dispute "certainly shows the 180-degree shift that many of our policy-makers have taken on this fight," Ferrulo said. "It just shows the effectiveness of spreading hundreds of thousands of dollars around Tallahassee -- what that gets you in the Legislature."

He continued: "I see a direct correlation between the amount of money these Texas oilmen are spreading around our Capitol and the amount of traction they are getting on this issue."

(Map courtesy of Coastal Petroleum. Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Free admission to Florida parks this weekend

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Florida's 160 state parks are open free through Sunday to anyone with a library card, a library book or gently-used family book that they can donate.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is offering the free entrance to celebrate September as "State Park Literary Month." DEP officials are encouraging people to combine reading with the beauty of the outdoors at a state park.

"Because reading and literacy is so vital to Florida's future, it should not just be confined to the classroom," DEP Secretary Michael Sole said in a news release. "With one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, I can think of no better place to read a good book than at one of Florida's 160 state parks."

The free admission is an added benefit this year because park entrance fees were increased from $5 to $8 at many of Florida's most popular state parks. The increases, estimated to raise $7.2 million annually, were proposed by DEP and approved in May by the Legislature.

Despite the fee hike, park attendance statewide increased in July increased by nearly 100,000 compared to last year -- from 2,296,515 to 2,395,831, according to DEP.

Click on image to view maps of Florida state parks

Learn more about Florida's state parks, go on the Web to
The Florida Parks Service recently launched a Twitter page at

(Photo courtesy of the Florida Park Service. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Senate President doubts special session for oil drilling

Senate President Jeff Atwater today said a special session of the Legislature in October is highly unlikely and he raised doubts about whether it should include consideration of lifting Florida's ban on offshore oil drilling.

Gov. Charlie Crist last week said drilling should be included in a special session in October to take up an agreement on gambling revenues with the Seminole Tribe. But environmentalists and some newspapers are urging the Legislature not to take up lifting the drilling ban.

In a letter to senators today, Atwater said an initial review of the gaming compact has raised questions about some of its terms. He also said the issue of offshore drilling "involves a series of complex conversations with a variety of interests and impacts throughout our state."

"These are policy decisions to be considered that are not well served by undue haste," he said. "If, or when, the Senate takes up this issue it will be in a manner that allows for sufficient time to debate the facts and the merits of such policy."

Atwater raised concerns about the compact in a letter to Crist but did not mention the drilling issue.

Drilling supporters said they support the Legislature taking up the issue whenever they are ready to do so.

Jose Gonzalez, vice president of government affairs at Associated Industries of Florida, said the Senate's concerns seemed to be more about the Seminole compact than drilling.

"We don't see this as a drawback," he said. "We see it as the Senate wanting to take their time on the issue."

Associated Industries of Florida released poll results on Wednesday showing that a majority of Florida residents support drilling. Drilling opponents have said such polls are based on the assumption that drilling won't cause environmental harm that opponents say will occur.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Progress, FP&L argue for nuke cost recovery

Witnesses for an environmental group and utilities wanting to build nuclear power plants sparred Tuesday before the Public Service Commission over the predicted costs of construction and how to pay for them.

Florida Power & LIght and Progress Energy Florida each have proposed building new nuclear plants and are asking the PSC for approval to charge customers to recover those costs in advance of construction. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says both requests should be denied.

The Legislature in 2007 adopted an energy bill that allowed utilities to charge customers in advance for the cost of constructing nuclear plants even if they are never built. That allows utilities to begin working on plants that otherwise would not be built because of their high initial costs, Florida Power & Light Officials said.

"The cost recovery reduces risk," Steven Scroggs, a senior director at FP&L, testified. "It also provides a pay-as-you-go opportunity rather than deferring that and building up cost for our customers. It's a better deal for our customers."

Florida Power & Light proposes building two new nuclear units at its Turkey Point plant in Dade County for $12 billion to $18 billion. Progress Energy proposes building a $17-billion plant in Levy County near the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Progress Energy says it has spent $243 million on the Levy plant between 2006 and 2008 and expects to spend more than $500 million in the next two years, according to PSC staff. The company is asking for $6.69 per month from the average utility customer in 2010 to pay for the pre-construction costs and for upgrading -- technically called "up-rating" -- its Crystal River nuclear reactor.

Florida Power & Light is seeking a 67-cent monthly charge in 2010 going up to $7.87 in 2017, Scroggs said. The company also is upgrading existing nuclear units at Turkey Point.

The utility is examining the cost each year and making decisions based upon a "step-wise" process, said utility spokesman Mayco Villafana. He said utility customers will save more than $1 billion per year by not using more expensive sources of energy.

Mark Cooper, a witness for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said energy costs for alternative sources of energy, such as natural gas, have fallen along with power demand while the cost of nuclear projects has risen.

"As a result, the financial risk of these plants has grown dramatically," he testified. "Moody's (investment rating firm) now considers the decision to build new nuclear reactors a quote, 'bet-the-farm' decision."

Members of the Southern Energy Network said they drove from Orlando on Tuesday to protest against nuclear with signs outside the PSC building.

"Local rate-payers are not even told they will have to do it (pay in advance for the plants)," member Jessica Burris said. "So it's not a fair way to go about it. They don't even know about the environmental and financial risks associated with nuclear reactors."

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Friday, September 4, 2009

Associated Industries wants oil drilling on special session agenda

Florida's oldest business group today said it wants the Legislature to take up oil drilling during an expected special session this fall.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that he may call a special session in October to adopt a gambling revenues agreement with the Seminole Tribe and that he would like drilling to be on the agenda. Associated Industries of Florida today said oil drilling is an "urgent imperative" to address the state's economic woes, including unemployment.

"There is no better way to recognize, honor and support Florida's workforce than for our leaders to create employment opportunities for nearly 1 million Floridians who are currently out of work," AIF President and CEO Barney Bishop said. "Energy production would put tens of thousands of Floridians to work."

But the idea of dealing with drilling legislation was immediately rejected by an Audubon of Florida representative. He also said Senate leadership was not behind the idea.

There's been a flurry of activity on the drilling issue this week following a St. Petersburg Times story reporting on a secretive group of drilling supporters that wants the state's drilling ban lifted. (Click here for link to story)

House Speaker Larry Cretul hasn't said whether he supports holding a special session on any issue. The Senate is reviewing the proposed Seminole compact and it would be premature to discuss a special session, said a spokeswoman for Senate President Jeff Atwater.

Sen. Mike Harodopolous, R-Melbourne and the likely Senate President in 2010, said this week he supports drilling. But he also said that the issue shouldn't be covered in a special session unless everyone's concerns can be addressed, according to the News Service of Florida.

In the news release issued today, Bishop said oil drilling would create more than 40,000 jobs in Florida. Opponents say claims of jobs and state revenues are overly speculative.

The drilling issue, Bishop said, "demands the kind of focus it would receive in a special session."

On the contrary, Audubon Vice Presiden Eric Draper said in response.

"Special sessions are usually places where the deals are cut before people get together and meet," he told "Major issues going through regular sessions have the benefit of many committee meetings and a full airing before all the substantive committees with complex issues."

He continued: "I don't think the governor really gave thought to the complexity of this issue or the difficulty in evaluating the legislative changes to make sure we're actually protecting the environment."

Download AIF's news release by clicking here.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Florida DEP, PEER tussle over carbon cap-and-trade

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says Gov. Charlie Crist has abandoned carbon emissions cap-and-trading in his quest for a U.S. Senate seat, but a state Department of Environmental Protection response suggests it's all untrue.

PEER, a watchdog group of former government employees, says the state, under Crist, has decided to to drop its cap-and-trade rule under development and back out of a regional greenhouse gas initiative.

“Gov. Crist’s retreat signifies that it is becoming increasing difficult for environmentally-concerned citizens to advance in today’s Republican Party – and that is a real shame,” Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips said in a news release. “Of all the states, Florida arguably has the most to lose from rising sea levels, bigger, nastier storms and the other side effects associated with climate change.”

But DEP Secretary Michael Sole says Florida hasn't abandoned cap-and-trade. And he says the PEER news release is inaccurate.

A cap-and-trade program would set limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases and allow companies to purchase or sell credits towards achieving those limits. Gov. Crist in 2007 directed DEP to develop a cap-and-trade rule as part of his initiative to address climate change.

But Crist, who says he now is focusing on the economy, has raised concerns about the cost of pending federal cap-and-trade legislation, according to the Miami Herald. A St. Petersburg Times editorial this week criticized the hometown governor for walking away from a "laudable climate change agenda."

After PEER issued a news release Wednesday, Sole fired back with his own statement.

Here's how the feud between PEER and DEP unfolded:

DEP spokeswoman Amy Graham was quoted in Platts Megawatt Daily on Aug. 29 about Florida's future in the cap-and-trade program, saying that DEP would not be submitting a rule to the Florida Legislature in 2010.

Also, Graham said Florida's decision on whether to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which consists of ten states that sell carbon emissions credits, would be up to the Legislature.

In response to the article, Maryland Air Quality Program Administrator Diane Franks wrote in an e-mail Monday that Florida won't be participating in an RGGI upcoming carbon credits auction. That e-mail has been posted by PEER at its Web site and was the basis for the group's news release on Wednesday.

But Sole, contradicting his department's spokeswoman's statement from last week, said DEP had not decided yet whether to submit a cap-and-trade rule to the Legislature in 2010.

Sole did not say whether Graham's quote on behalf of DEP was inaccurate or whether the department's position had changed. Graham did not respond to that question from or return a phone call seeking comment.

But Sole did say her quote was "out of context." And he said it was "unfortunate" that the quote from Platts Megawatt Daily was distributed "as an official announcement of Florida's position."

"Currently, Florida's rulemaking efforts are continuing, however, it is unclear as to whether DEP will be prepared to present a final rule to the 2010 Legislature," Sole said. "As noted in current law, there are many factors that must be evaluated prior to submittal and the 2010 timeline is the soonest that we would be able to submit."

Sole said no decisions or recommendations have been made on whether to join a regional initiative and added that the ultimate decision would be up to the Legislature.

PEER's Phillips said he had not seen Sole's statement, but he also said he saw no reason for the group to withdraw its news release. He said DEP apparently saw no reason to correct the record beforehand.

"The whole thing (cap-and-trade) I think would have been buried if we hadn't released it," Peer said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Group gives Florida D+ on water quality

The Gulf Restoration Network today said Florida gets a D+ grade for its efforts to protect water quality, which was about the average grade for Gulf coast states.

In a report card for the Gulf states, the group particularly faulted Florida for not setting specific limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, giving it an F in that category. Failure to set nutrients caused algal blooms and red tide along the coast, a Sierra Club representative said.

Florida received a C grade in the three other categories: Water quality standards, public health standards and public participation.

Regarding that F grade: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year began setting numeric standards for nutrient pollution in response to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directive. Then EPA last month said it would step in and set those standards to settle a federal lawsuit filed by other environmental groups.

But a spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network said Florida didn't deserve a better grade because the report card is about measuring existing rules to protect water quality, not rules that are in the works.

"This is a place where they will hopefully be improving their grade," said Matt Rota, water resources program director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "But we have learned to not trust things until they actually are on the books, until you can see them being implemented."

"Every state should not be average," he added. "Every state should be a straight-A student."

(Click on report card to download a PDF of the report)

Jerry Phillips, director of Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said DEP had opposed setting numeric criteria for nutrients in 2001 during a legal challenge to the state's "impaired waters" rule.

In response, Florida DEP's Jerry Brooks issued a statement saying that the report was "disappointing" because it did not measure "critical factors" needed to achieve water quality improvement.

"When one weighs the actual water quality progress made in Florida as compared to progress made across the nation, the level of investment in water quality restoration in Florida eclipses the efforts of many other areas of the country," said Brooks, director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

In its report card, the Gulf Restoration Network also faulted Florida for not having any "Outstanding Natural Resource Waters," a designation that the groups said would prohibit degradation.

The "Outstanding Florida Waters" designation that is applied to some springs and waterways including the Suwannee River prohibits degradation, but the group said Florida's permitting regulations offer too many exceptions to prevent pollution.

Gulf Restoration Network representatives said their report did not analyze how existing regulations are enforced. But Phillips, the PEER director, echoed his group's past criticism of DEP for inadequate fines and lax enforcement against polluters.

"If Florida is to clean up its act, it will have to put safeguards in place so those frontline employees feel free to do their jobs based upon sound science as opposed to pleasing the political whims of their bosses," Phillips said.

DEP was asked for a response to individual points raised at the news conference but spokesman Doug Tobin said the department may not be able to respond in time for publication.

Among the other Gulf states, Texas received a C-, Alabama and Mississippi both received a D+ and Louisiana received an F.
To learn more about the Gulf Restoration Network, go to

(Photo copyrighted by Sue Damon. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Groups urge House speaker to support lands program

Environmentalists today met with House Speaker Larry Cretul to urge his support for Florida's conservation land-buying program, but the issue of using oil drilling revenue to buy land was not discussed.

Supporters of offshore oil drilling in the Legislature continue to promote the idea of using oil revenue to pay for the land-buying program, which has been the largest in the nation. The Legislature earlier this year declined to borrow $300 million for the Florida Forever program for the first time since 1990.

"We had a good broad discussion about the merits of Florida Forever," said Andrew McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter. Former Rep. David Flagg of Gainesville also attended as a Florida Forever supporter.

Also today, Gov. Charlie Crist said energy also could be the subject of a possible special legislative session in October to ratify an agreement with the Seminole tribe to provide gambling revenue to the state.

Asked when energy means oil drilling, Crist responded "possibly," adding that he may want to see it on the agenda too. He also said that it could depend on whether a drilling bill is filed by legislators.

A bill in May that would have opened Florida waters to drilling within three miles of the coast passed the House but died in the Senate after Crist raised concerns at that time about the close proximity of drilling. That bill would have provided a portion of state revenue paid for by oil production to conservation land-buying, a proposal that environmental groups rejected along with the bill.

The possibility of using oil revenue for Florida Forever was not discussed during today's meeting with Cretul, Flagg said.

"This is our first meeting," Flagg said. "We want to get started as noncontroversial as possible."

During budget talks in May, the Senate offered to provide $50 million for Florida Forever but the House refused. Cretul, R-Ocala, said after the legislative session that he didn't think there was anything wrong with taking a break from land-buying.

But Cretul today expressed a willingness to look for money for the program in 2010 -- tempered with realism about the economy and declining revenue collections, said Todd Reid, staff director in the House Majority Office.

"The speaker said, 'We're optimistic but we're also realistic. We are facing a lot of challenges,' " Reid said.

Group representatives revealed during the meeting with Cretul that former governors Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush are serving as honorary co-chairmen of the Florida Forever Coalition.

Flagg, a member of the Suwannee River Water Management District board, said the district uses the land-buying program for purchases to protect water quality.

"Water is not a partisan issue," Flagg said. "Conservation is not a partisan issue."

(Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments. com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)