Saturday, October 22, 2011

About 150 protest outside environmental journalism conference

Some said they felt welcomed by the Society of Environmental Journalists, others felt marginalized by the organization.

More than 100 protestors for varying causes held signs, beat drums and chanted Saturday at a "Rally for the Environment" in a park outside the International Hotel in Miami, site of SEJ's national conference.

Ana Campos of Fort Lauderdale described herself as one of the "culprits" who organized the event, involving more than 40 groups in South Florida along with the Miami version of Occupy Wall Street.

She said the groups were welcomed by SEJ and felt they were "preaching to the choir."

"We are celebrating them (SEJ)," Campos said. "We are the ones who couldn't afford it (to participate in the conference) so we infiltrated their conference. And we were greeted with applause and hugs and thumbs up."

While SEJ conference participants boarded buses for three-hour mini-tours of environmental sites, the rally participants held signs protesting a variety of issues including Monsanto Co. and genetically-modified foods, Florida Power & Light Co. for its proposed nuclear power plant expansion at Turkey Point and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his environmental policies.

Liam Scheff, an independent journalist who has written for independent newspapers in Boston and New York and for, said he felt marginalized because so few SEJ members came over to visit the rally.

"They should have walked over across the street -- that's all," Sheff said. While he said only two to four came over, he pointed out "a couple of hundred people got on those (tour) buses."

"I guess I just would have expected more of them to care," Sheff said. "I guess if we had pictures of Paris Hilton or what's her name -- Demi Moore -- and Ashton Kutcher, we would have more (coverage)."

Matthew Schwartz held a sign saying, "No FPL power plant in panther habitat" -- a reference to what he says is a possible Florida Power & Light Co. natural gas power plant in Hendry County.

What was different about Schwartz was that he also was on the SEJ conference agenda. As executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, he spoke Friday during the "Florida's Iconic Critters" panel.

He said Saturday that south Florida's landscape, with its biodiversity and threatened species, is a national treasure that deserves the attention of a broader audience.

"This (protest) is sending a message in a different way," Schwartz said. "Hopefully we will get some good press coverage about this."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rumberger remembered as tireless champion for Everglades

E. Thom Rumberger was remembered Monday as a champion of the Everglades who was gracious and effective while also helping build the modern Republican Party in Florida.

Read more at the new

(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/, used with permission.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Future of state growth management in question under new department

Doug Darling, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity

The head of the new department that will house Florida's growth management division says he'll have to decide future growth management decisions on a case-by-case basis.

SB 2156, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 14, abolishes the Florida Department of Community Affairs and transfers its planning division to a new Department of Economic Opportunity by Oct. 1.

Coupled with other growth law changes, some environmentalists have worried that the department's development mission will trump state laws designed to curb urban sprawl and protect communities and natural areas.

Doug Darling, an aide to Gov. Rick Scott, will be executive director of the new Department of Economic Opportunity. The Division of Community Development will consist of about 32 planners, down from 61 last year at DCA's Division of Community Planning.

In an interview earlier this month, Darling said the new law changes placed growth decisions in the hands of local government while the state's role is to focus on large-scale land-use planning.

"So what I believe will happen on a local comprehensive plan amendment or something like that unless it is an area of critical state concern, the state will not weigh in," Darling said.

The law changes also call for the state to get involved in areas of "significant" state resources. Environmental group representatives argue that it's unclear what those resources are because they have not been identified.

Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy, said in June he's concerned that decisions by planners to challenge development projects may get overruled in the new department.

"Will it [growth management law] be rendered nonfunctional by pressure from the top of the Department of Economic Opportunity?" Lee said.

Darling says if the former DCA planners say a development is a bad idea, then "I think I will act much like any other agency head who takes staff recommendations and who perhaps has sometimes a different perspective on things."

"Maybe they are focusing on one thing too much, or I may absolutely support them," he added "I will take it on a case-by-case basis."

A transition team progress report on Aug. 15 lays out the organizational structure of the new department. A consultant's report issued Aug. 19 discuss recommendations for the new department to help businesses create jobs.

There is little discussion of the new department's growth management role in an 82-page consultant's report beyond mention of programs and responsibilities on pages 54-55.

In his earlier interview, Darling said he doesn't see economic development and growth management as being in conflict.

"Our growth management has always included an economic development element," he said.

Lee said this week that Darling's appointment was good because he has an environmental background as former inspector general of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

But Lee also said the question remains whether growth management will survive within the department. The culture of the department, as established by Darling, will be the key factor, Lee said.

"We will probably have some early tests where the (former) Division of Community Planning is in a position to do something and either does or doesn't," Lee said. "And some resources will be either protected or sacificed because of that."

(Governor's Office photo. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nestlé drops idea of water pumping near Wacissa River

Nestlé Waters North America on Wednesday told state officials the company no longer is considering a water-pumping operation along the Wacissa River in Jefferson County.

Nestlé, a global water company which includes bottling operations near Blue Spring in Madison County and near Crystal Springs in Pasco County, said testing of Allen Spring along the Wacissa showed a lack of sufficient flow during droughts. The company had not yet filed for a permit but faced local and regional opposition to the idea of pumping.

"We have shared this data with the Suwannee River Water Management District to support their ongoing assessment of the watershed and informed them that this concludes our exploration of spring sources on the Wacissa River,” said Kent Koptiuch, Florida natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America.

Water bottling has raised concerns among some residents who don't like the idea of selling a public resource or worry about the effects on area wells, stream flows and aquatic life. Company officials, who also tout the jobs created by their plants, said they conducted tests along the Wacissa River to ensure there would not be environmental harm.

Georgia Ackerman, president of the Friends of Wacissa, said she doesn't doubt that the company is dropping the idea of pumping from the Wacissa River springs. But she said her group is not going away.

"Obviously the Friends of the Wacissa coalition is elated at the news," Ackerman said. "We will continue our work on springs protection issues."

In the Florida Capitol, the issue of water bottling has been lopsided in favor of the bottling companies in recent years.

The Legislature established a six-percent sales tax exemption on bottled water in 1998. Bills by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, to remove the exemption died in committees in 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a surcharge on bottled water but the idea never made it into the state budget after Big Bend Democratic representatives voiced opposition.

(Photo by Richard Zelznak. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gopher tortoises became candidate for federal protection

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that gopher tortoises warrant federal Endangered Species Act protection in Florida and Southern states east of the Mississippi.

The tortoise will become a candidate for listing as threatened and endangered east of the Mississippi River including Florida. But the gopher tortoises won't be listed for protection because the agency doesn't have the money, said Cynthia Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We never know as much as what we would like to know," Dohner said. "But we know tortoise habitat conditions are deteriorating and its habitat is more and more fragmented across the southeast."

Gopher tortoises face threats from development and lack of proper forest management including lack of prescribed fires in their upland habitat, agency officials said. In Florida, gopher tortoises are listed as threatened and developers must relocate them away from construction sites.

The decision on Tuesday to list tortoises as a federal candidate species doesn't mean there will be any additional restrictions on landowners, federal officials said.

There are more than 250 species on the candidate list that are in line ahead of the gopher tortoise for evaluation and possible listing, agency officials said.

Gopher tortoises are considered a key species in upland forests because other threatened and endangered animals depend on their burrows for habitat. The tortoises can live to be over 50 years old, but do not reproduce until they are 13 to 21 years old.

Although there seems to be many gopher tortoises, the agency says the current generation is aging and not reproducing successfully because of degraded habitat. As older gopher tortoises die, they are not being replaced by young ones.

The decision to designate the gopher tortoise as a candidate for listing means landowners will be eligible for grants to improve their forest habitat.

Save Our Big Scrub and Wild South Inc. filed a petition in 2006 that led to the agency announcement on Tuesday to list the species as a candidate. Agency officials said they hoped to evaluate all species on the list within five years.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments in favor of protecting the gopher tortoise and said the announcement Tuesday provided hope for its protection.

“The gopher tortoise is clearly in trouble and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to need the help that only the Endangered Species Act can provide,” Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. "We hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will prioritize funding to make sure the tortoise gets the protection it needs."

A copy of the petition and the agency register notice can be viewed at .

(Images courtesy of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Florida PSC may reconsider energy goals set in 2009

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday rejected energy conservation plans proposed for the state's two largest electric utilities because of concerns about cost.

Instead, commissioners said they may reconsider the conservation goals set by the PSC only two years ago -- before the Legislature removed four of the five commission members at the time.

"Sometimes certain things work during certain periods and they make sense in terms of policy," Commissioner Ronald Brise said. "But when things change, sometimes we may have to change with the times to address the issues that are before us."

The PSC voted to reject plans for Florida Power & Light Co. and Progress Energy required under the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA) of 2008.

Instead the commission is asking that all seven of the state's largest utilities tell the agency how quickly they can provide updated information that can be used for setting new conservation goals. The decision on Tuesday leaves existing conservation programs, including solar rebate programs, in place at Progress Energy and FPL.

The agency staff had recommended approval of an alternative plan submitted by Progress Energy because of concerns about the cost to the utility's 1.6 million customers. That alternative plan would raise the monthly conservation cost from $3.24 now to a peak of $6.13 in 2014.

That plan would not have met the conservation goals set by the agency in 2009. A plan to meet those goals would have increased the monthly cost to $11.28 next year and $20 by 2017.

Agency staff recommended approval of an FPL plan that would meet the energy-saving goals set by the commission. That plan would have raised the monthly conservation cost for the average customer from $2.26 now to $4.11 in 2014.

Progress Energy officials said the agency set higher conservation goals for them compared to other utilities and they don't know why. They said achieving greater energy savings over existing conservation programs would cost more.

A representative of the Florida Industrial Power Users Group warned the commission that electricity rates are a key factor when companies decide to open plants and bring new jobs to Florida.

And the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which supported the conservation goals, argued that the PSC failed to conduct a thorough analysis to determine why Progress Energy conservation programs would cost so much more than for other utilities.

Commissioner Julie I. Brown asked whether the goals set by the PSC in 2009 were "too lofty." She is among the four new commissioners who replaced four commissioners last year when four reform-minded commissioners were not reappointed or confirmed.

Commissioner Lisa Edgar, the only commissioner remaining from 2009, responded that those goals were "robust and aspirational" as provided by state law. She said the law also provides flexibility for commissioners to re-examine the goals they have set.

After the meeting, Tom Larson of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the commission had "punted" on approving conservation programs that would benefit Florida residents.

He noted that the PSC on Tuesday also approved making more FPL commercial and industrial electricity customers eligible for a discount because they locate new operations in Florida or expand existing operations. Larson said no one asked what the rate impact would be on customers as they did with the conservation measures.

"One side of the mouth says one thing," Larson said of the PSC. "The next docket (case), they say the next thing."

Photo by Intergrated Building and Construction Solutions. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, July 25, 2011

Florida parks increase visitors after drop in previous year

Honeymoon Island State Park

Maybe the slow economy is encouraging people to rediscover nature. Or maybe the weather just was more inviting this past year.

For whatever reasons, attendance at Florida state parks increased slightly in 2010-11 following a sharp dip the previous year, according to state park officials.

Park attendance in fiscal year 2010-11 increased to 20.4 million, up 332,191 from 2009-10 for an increase of 1.6 percent. The increase comes despite the 2010 BP oil spill that discouraged beach tourism along with the continuing economic malaise.

Last year, park attendance dropped by 1.3 million, or 6.7 percent, from 2009-11.

Park officials last year said they couldn't explain the decrease. But the change followed the Legislature increasing park entrance fees from 40 to 60 percent in 2009.

The fee increase also resulted in a 20-percent increase in entrance fee collection despite the decline in attendance. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested the fee increase in 2009, saying it would help park visitors pay more of the cost of running state parks.

Another possible factor in the drop last year may have led to the increase this year -- weather.

Last year, record cold temperatures gripped the state during the winter and early spring of 2010. Much of the decline in visitation last year occurred at beach parks listed among the 10 most popular in the state.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and . Do not redistribute without permission.