Wednesday, January 28, 2009

FSU President Wetherell knocks biomass probe

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida State University President T. K. Wetherell said a grand jury might not be investigating a proposed biomass plant on FSU property if the state attorney had requested information from the university.

State Attorney Willie Meggs says a grand jury this week directed him to look further into the deal in which Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga., proposed building the plant on 21 acres of FSU land in southwest Tallahassee. Wood and plant material would be heated to create gas that is burned to produce electricity, which would be sold to city of Tallahassee utility customers.

Wetherell's wife, Virginia, said last year she was a partner in the company. But she said there wasn't a conflict of interest because the governor and Cabinet, not FSU officials, approved a lease on the property in 2006.

Asked about the potential conflict of interest, T.K. Wetherell on Tuesday said, "It doesn't have anything to do with that. I can't talk to you about it. You got all you are going to get. You will have to go to the lawyers."

He did say at first that FSU will provide all the information that Meggs wants.

"I wish they had asked for it on the front end, but they didn't," Wetherell said.

And asked what difference that would have made, he said, "Well, I don't think they'd be looking into it."

Company officials said the project, with a $150 million investment, would provide clean energy and "green" jobs for Tallahassee. The site, company officials have said, was ideal because it is surrounded by railroad tracks to deliver the wood fuel and is near an electrical substation.

The proposal raised concerns about noise, odor and pollution from some area residents and the Council of Neighborhood Associations in Tallahassee. The local NAACP branch asked Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum to investigate the deal including the possible conflict of interest with the Wetherells.

An NAACP attorney said the group still wants an investigation. Meggs said today the company's decision last week to relocate the plant wasn't a factor in the grand jury's decision to proceed.

Responding to Wetherell's statement that he should have first asked for information from the university, Meggs said his motivation also would have been questioned if he'd launched the investigation himself rather than leaving it for the grand jury to decide.

"It won't be me (investigating), it will be a group of citizens who gets the answer," he said. "I don't know if I follow the logic of why didn't I ask for it (information from the university). Ask for what?"

BG&E on Monday announced it would not build in Leon County and said it was withdrawing the project from FSU's master plan, with a company official criticizing Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor and opponent Erwin Jackson for fueling controversy over the proposal.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crist budget vetoes restore land-buying program

By Bruce Ritchie

Saying that the state's land-buying program is "near and dear" to himself, Gov. Charlie Crist this afternoon announced he is vetoing a deep cut to the Florida Forever Program by the Legislature earlier this month.

"I believe in preserving Florida's natural beauty for future generations, not just for the beauty itself but also for our economic vitality," Crist told reporters.

The Florida Forever program has acquired more than 500,000 acres for state parks, state forests, and water managemetn district lands since it was begun in 2000, succeeding the Preservation 2000 program launched in 1990.

The Legislature earlier this month voted to cut Florida Forever to address a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall caused by the slowing economy. Crist said the Legislature approved an additional $300 million in cuts above what he had proposed in December.

The governor today thanked legislative leaders for the difficult task of trying to balance the budget. But he said his vetoes will keep the state budget in balance by about $210 million.

The Legislature's cut would have prevented the state from issuing $250 million in bonds under Florida Forever. Crist said to maintain the program, he only had to restore $2.3 million in general revenue spending that was cut by the Legislature.

That amount of money to restore the program "was something we could handle and we could do," Crist said.

Environmentalists hailed the governor for maintaining the state's land-buying efforts that date back to the 1980s.

"The governor has upheld the tradition that goes back to (former Gov.) Bob Graham in making sure that Florida protects our environmentally-sensitive lands," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Crist said he was not vetoing two bills that environmentalists wanted him to block to prevent sweeps of environmental trust funds. HB 5113 transfers $8 million from the Water Management Lands Trust Fund to general revenue and HB 5115 transfers $11 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to general revenue.

While not directly addressing Florida Forever or the trust funds bills, House Speaker Ray Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater said today difficult budget challenges remain for the next fiscal year. Sansom said the House thought it was prudent to reduce spending in excess of the projected deficit to keep the budget in balance.

"As we move beyond today's budget vetoes, the difficult challenges we will face in balancing the budget for 2009-10 remains," Sansom said in a statement.

Photo of St. Marks River State Park, purchased in 2005 under Florida Forever.

Photo and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama's auto emissions directive fuels Florida debate

By Bruce Ritchie

President Obama's decision Monday to direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review California's request to set auto emissions standards is increasing the debate in Florida over Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to follow California's lead.

Crist in 2007 said that Florida would adopt California's standards to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2025. In Florida, 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from motor vehicles, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

But the Bush administration and the EPA last year refused to approve California's standards, essentially blocking any state from following California's lead. Critics said setting separate state emissions standards for greenhouse gases would raise the cost of vehicles and create a regulatory patchwork.

Crist said Monday he applauds the president's decision.

“The waiver is a critical aspect for California, Florida and 17 other states which have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, automobile emissions standards," Crist said in a statement. “Florida stands ready to assist the federal government in addressing this important issue, and we will continue our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy security and protect the state’s environment.”

Amid concerns raised by automobile manufacturers and dealers about Crist's proposal, the Legislature in 2008 said it must approve any auto emissions standards set by Florida. The Environmental Regulation Commission last month voted to recommend approval of the California standards.

Environmental groups nationally and in Florida on Monday hailed Obama's decision. Federal approval removes the argument that Florida shouldn't adopt California's standards because the federal government would not approve, said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

"All of the objections the automakers had are falling by the wayside while the case for doing a state rule continues to grow," Draper said.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers will be asking the Legislature not to adopt California's emissions standards, said Dan Stengle, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the alliance. The group, he said, remains concerned about having a patchwork of state requirements, especially during an economic downturn.

The alliance has estimated that California's standards could drive up the cost of vehicles by $1,000 to $3,000, Stengle said. But DEP says car owners will save $1,000 to $2,300 over the life of a vehicle with new federal mileage standards and the California emissions rule.

Auto manufacturers, Stengle said, want to work with the Obama administration to develop uniform automobile standards nationwide in time for the 2011 model year.

"With the worst market conditions since World War II, they (auto manufacturers) think clarity and a national approach is best for the automobile manufacturers and for an economic comeback," Stengle said.

See national coverage of the Obama announcement:
New York Times
Los Angeles Times

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tallahassee biomass plant withdrawn

By Bruce Ritchie

A Georgia company says it has decided to withdraw a proposed biomass electric plant on Florida State University land in Tallahassee that had raised ethical questions about FSU President T.K. Wetherell and his wife's involvement in the company.

The Biomass Gas & Electric LLC project was to be located on 21 acres of FSU land in southwest Tallahassee. Wetherell's wife, former Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell, said last year she was a partner in the company.

The plant would heat wood to produce gas and would have been the first such biomass gas plant in Florida, according to DEP. Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 praised the technology as a needed source of renewable energy for Florida.

Some opponents, while claiming the project would cause noise, odors and air pollution, also said there was a conflict of interest between the Wetherells and FSU. Virginia Wetherell last year denied such accusations, saying the governor and Cabinet, not FSU officials, decided to lease the university land for the plant.

But this week, the local NAACP branch in Tallahassee asked Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing. The Tallahassee City Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing next week on FSU's proposed master plan, which includes the biomass plant.

In a letter delivered Friday to city officials, BG&E President and CEO Glenn Farris said Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor and opponent Erwin Jackson had launched a "divisive smear campaign intended to kill the truth and the best interests of the community." The letter made no reference to the conflict of interest accusations.

"Proctor and Jackson exploited this project to divide the community for their own personal and political gain," Farris said.

Company officials said the plant would produce 200 construction jobs and would be a part of the green energy initiative supported by President Obama.

In addition to facing opposition from the NAACP, the Council of Neighborhood Associations in Tallahassee this week voted against supporting the biomass plant at its proposed location.

Neither T. K. Wetherell, a former House speaker, nor Virginia Wetherell, a former state representative, could be reached for comment on Friday.

FSU spokeswoman Browning Brooks said Friday that Wetherell recently stated that his only comment is there was no foundation to the personal accusation. Brooks also said FSU attorneys are reviewing the letter sent this week to Crist.

A DEP spokeswoman said the permit application for the plant has not been withdrawn and that a legal hearing remains scheduled for June 15-19. If the project is relocated, a new permit application would have to be filed.

Jackson, who owns 75 to 100 rental homes in southeast Tallahassee, said he wants the DEP permit application to be withdrawn before he is sure the project will not be built. He said

"He (Farris) has now hopefully been run out of Tallahassee," Jackson said. "If I had a small part to do with that, I am pleased."

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks said the city would continue would continue to pursue biomass projects. Farris said in his letter he still intends to sell power from the plant to the city and is discussing a site with another community, which wasn't named.

Marks also said the plant was never a city project, although the city had agreed to buy power from BG&E. Asked whether there were any lessons to be learned from the controversy, Marks said, "The community has to be fully informed about the nature of the project. I'm not sure under these circumstances they got everything."

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie
Photo of the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vt., courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Climate commission members face small-talk dilemma

By Bruce Ritchie

When do the Sunshine Law and weather small-talk not mix? When the law applies to members of the new Florida Energy and Climate Commission, which held its first meeting last week.

The commission received a briefing from Pat Gleason, director of Cabinet affairs for Gov. Charlie Crist and special counsel on open government. Gleason has been giving briefings to government officials and reporters for many years on the state's open meetings law, called the Sunshine Law.

Gleason explained to the Energy and Climate Commission that the Sunshine Law requires any meeting of members of an elected or appointed board to be properly advertised and open to the public. But she said the law doesn't prohibit board members from meeting in social gatherings as long as they don't discuss business that could come before their board.

"It doesn't violate the sunshine law if two board members talk about the weather," Gleason told the commission.

But Susan Glickman, U.S. southern region director for the Climate Group, quipped that weather does involve the climate issue. Scientists have debated the effects of rising temperatures on weather patterns and hurricanes.

After several moments of chuckling by audience and board members, Gleason corrected herself about weather chit-chat: "Except in climate change."

"I have used that example over and over," Gleason said with good-natured exasperation. "I have sometimes said in the affirmative (to members of various boards), 'Talk about the weather.' "

She then encouraged the Climate and Energy Commissioners instead to "talk about football."

But Gleason probably didn't realize that the climate issue even has touched the gridiron.

In 2007, the University of Florida and Florida State University held what they described as a "carbon-neutral" football game to help reduce climate change. Eighteen acres of North Florida land would be managed as a pine plantation for 10 years to absorb the equivalent carbon emissions as those created by the football game. UF's entire 2008 season was conducted as carbon-neutral

Gleason's comments point out how pervasive energy and climate issues are in our lives. They include food, housing, transportation, air quality, the economy, the environment and international relations -- just to name a few.

Perhaps members of the Climate and Energy Commission members should just wave if they see one another at a party.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Whooping cranes arrive in St. Marks

By Bruce Ritchie

ST. MARKS, Fla. -- An estimated 2,000 people were here today to see seven endangered whooping cranes being led by ultralight aircraft to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

The young cranes were led to the refuge for the first time as part of an effort to re-establish an eastern flock of whooping cranes, whose numbers dropped to 15 in 1941 because of hunting and habitat loss. There are nearly 400 of the birds in the wild today, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

"It was terrific," said 10-year-old Diana Robertson, whose parents drove her and her sister from Tallahassee to see the fly-over. "It was exciting. It was one of the best things of my life seeing these cranes."

Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet tall as mature adults

The 14 cranes began their 1,200-mile journey Oct. 17 from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. They were expected to arrive in early December but the journey was slowed by winds and bad weather.

The birds arrived in Jefferson County, east of Tallahassee, on Thursday. Their handlers were poised to take off Friday but were grounded by winds, disappointing a much smaller crowd than the one that showed up Saturday before sunrise.

The crowd, which came out on a 22-degree morning, was stretched along about a mile of the St. Marks River from the old Spanish fort to the small commercial district. But the birds didn't show up until about 8:45 a.m., as the first of three ultralight aircraft appeared above the tree line.

The seven birds and aircraft flew directly over the crowd at about 1,000 feet before disappearing to the west, amid applause muffled by gloved hands. The birds and planes landed in a three-acre pen in the refuge, where they'll be kept away from visitors so they can develop wild instincts.

By late February or early March, the birds are expected to return on their own to central Wisconsin. They can make the trip back on their own in less than 10 days, said Joe Duff, a pilot with Operation Migration.

The nonprofit group still is seeking about $15,000 in donations to pay for the trip, which costs about $250,000. The pilots and other team members answered questions for about 80 people who remained about 45 minutes after the birds passed over.

"Everybody says, 'How do you stay warm (while flying)?' You don't -- you just get cold," Duff said. "You put up with it . . . It's just two hours. You can hang by your thumb for two hours."

The only remaining whooping cranes in 1941 migrated between Canada and Texas. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership in 2001 established the flock migrating from Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla.

The eastern flock now contains 73 birds, Duff said. Half of the 14 new birds hatched last year went to St. Marks and the other half will be led to Chassahowtizka within the next week, weather permitting. There are now nearly 400 birds in the wild, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

For more on Operation MIgration or to donate to support the trip, go the group's Web site at .

Story and photos copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Air regulations could vex use of prescribed fire

By Bruce Ritchie

Those who work to improve natural areas on federal, state and private lands are at risk of losing one of their most important tools -- prescribed fire, a top federal fire official said this week.

Land managers in Florida burn about 2 million acres a year in Florida on average to improve habitat for wildlife and reduce the risk of wildfires, according to the Florida Division of Forestry. But state forestry officials say burning is needed on up to 6 million acres annually.

Dennis Haddow, the national smoke management program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told a fire ecology conference in Tallahassee that air quality regulations and nuisance complaints about smoke in neighborhoods threaten the use of prescribed fire. He said land managers need to take responsibility for their actions and get to know local, state and federal air quality regulators to avoid having their prescribed fire operations shut down.

"Air quality regulations are getting more stringent," Haddow said. "We need to be involved in writing those regulations. We must be experts on the impacts of our emissions. And we must be leaders rather than followers."

Prescribed burning operations must deal with federal regulations including those regulating ozone or smog, fine particles pollution and regional haze in national parks. Haddow said eventually reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants would address those problems, but he said prescribed burning may be the target of regulations until then.

State and regional air regulations even apply to federal lands, Haddow said. The National Park Service, he said, had to pay $25,000 to an air pollution control district for burning without a local permit.

"You will never be able to blame air quality regulators for taking away our ability to use prescribed fire," Haddow said. "If we lose that, the only people we could ever blame is ourselves. The opportunity to make sure that doesn't happen is out there."

Haddow told Florida Environmental News during a break in the Tall Timbers 24th Fire Ecology Conference that Florida has led the way in working with air quality regulators. But he said there was a lot of finger-pointing in Georgia recently after smoke from prescribed fire blew into Atlanta.

"Probably the best cooperation in this part of the U.S. is in Florida. They work hard at it," Haddow said. "Georgia is moving ahead with it but has a ways to go."

Jim D. Brenner, fire management administrator with the Florida Division of Forestry, said he speaks regularly with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about air quality issues. DEP joined with the Division of Forestry a few years ago in defending a lawsuit in Palm Beach County over nuisance smoke from a legal prescribed fire.

"Talking with people across the country, I'm always amazed at how little cooperation there is between the air quality folks and the folks that are involved with prescribed fire." he said. "They are in constant competition.

"Here in Florida, that doesn't happen," he said. "We have an exceptionally good relationship."

Georgia officials are beginning to inform the public and work with air regulators at the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Alan Dozier, fire protection chief at the Georgia Forestry Commission.

"The federal air quality folks are listening more than ever," Dozier said. "I'm not going to say we're where we need to be with EPA, but we're sure working at it. We're finally at the table."

Fire managers face increasing challenges against lawsuits, development in forested areas and a society that is increasingly out of touch with land management and natural areas, said Kevin Robertson, fire ecologist at Tall Timbers.

"It's very clear to me if we lose prescribed fire, we will lose everything we worked so hard to preserve," Robertson said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gov. Crist addresses first climate change meeting

By Bruce Ritchie

Gov. Charlie Crist today told the inaugural meeting of the state Energy and Climate Commission that Florida has embarked on a "great path and challenge" in developing renewable energy and diversifying its fuel resources.

"These are challenging times," Crist said during the meeting in the Capitol. "And I am convinced that the more diversified we are in opportunities and products as it relates to energy give us an opportunity to be more competitive."

The commission held its first meeting since being created last year by the Legislature. The commission is in charge of making recommendations to the governor and Legislature, helping agencies develop energy and climate policies and programs and assessing progress on Florida's Energy and Climate Action Plan produced last year.

Earlier this week, some House members expressed skepticism about whether climate change is real, according to a Florida Times-Union report. In its session that begins in March, the Legislature will be asked to adopt California's stricter vehicle emissions standards for vehicles and approve setting a requirement for utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole pointed out there are 27 new House members, many of whom are new to the issue. "The benefit of educating House members about why this (climate initiative) is good for Florida will be accomplished," Sole said. And he said the governor is a strong believer in addressing climate change.

"I'm confident there will be strong support to continue to pursue what we believe is in the best interest of Florida both from an environmental standpoint, an economic standpoint, and finally even an energy security standpoint which is what all these things relate to," Sole said.

Environmental group representatives said they think the commission will play an important role.

"The complexities of energy require the deep consideration that a body like this will be able to provide," said Susan Glickman, southern region director of the Climate Group.

Commission Chairman James F. Murley, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic, said carrying out the recommendations of the climate plan will involve several state agencies -- along with local governments. He said Dade, Sarasota and Broward are among the counties that already have taken a leadership role in responding to climate change.

"I think it is absolutely important that you recognize local governments in the state of Florida... take these issues very seriously," he said.

Copyright by Bruce Ritchie

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Landowner says he'll sell rather than wait on state

By Bruce Ritchie

A Leon County landowner says he likely won't sell to the state now that the Legislature has cut its conservation land-buying program.

The Legislature Wednesday voted to approve a $2.8 billion package of spending cuts and trust fund transfers. The measure was needed to offset declining revenue in the state budget, legislative leaders said.

The Legislature would freeze the Florida Forever land-buying program that has protected more than 500,000 acres since 2000. Two projects already approved by the governor and Cabinet, including the 54-acre Rakestraw property in Leon County, won't be purchased this fiscal year.

With the Legislature poised to cut the program on Tuesday, landowner Jim Rakestraw said that means that his family likely will look for another buyer and said there are prospects.

"I don't think I'll hold off for the state any more," Rakestraw said. "We"ve been trying to do this for four years. I imagine it will go on the market for anybody who wants it."

Environmental groups Wednesday voiced disappointment at the pending loss of money for the largest conservation land buying program in the nation.

"The Legislature is turning its back on scores of important projects, many of which will probably end up getting developed rather than protected," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

The Rakestraw's 54 acres near the Natural Bridge battlefield state park in Leon County includes relics of the Civil War and prehistoric settlements dating back 12,000 years. It also contains at least eight openings into a watery cave system where the St. Marks River flows underground.

The governor and Cabinet voted unanimously in November to purchase the property. But Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole said the budget cutting package doesn't allow Florida Forever funds to go toward the purchase.

Other conservation purchases not on DEP's purchase list likely also will be affected. The Northwest Florida Water Management District was considering the purchase of 5,000 acres along the Chipola River but will put that off because of budget cuts, said Doug Barr, the district's executive director.

Draper said environmental groups also may ask the governor to veto HB 5113. which transfers $8 million from the Water Management Lands Trust Fund to general revenue, and HB 5115, which transfers $11 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and chair of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, said last week the transfers were needed because of declines in documentary stamp tax revenue. Analysts told legislators in December they expect the state this year to receive only 29 percent of the $4 billion received annually from documentary stamp taxes.

Sen. J.D. Alexander on Wednesday tried to reassure environmentalists that the freeze of the Florida Forever land buying program is intended to be temporary, according to the News Service of Florida.

Alexander, R-Winter Haven, said during debate that the Florida Forever is “a program that clearly is very important to our state” and that he looks at the freeze as being temporary.

“It would be my hope ... that these critical programs could be reinstated,” Alexander said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CFO Sink raises concerns about land purchases

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida state CFO Alex Sink raised concerns today that the Legislature's proposed cuts to the state's land purchase program will kill land deals that already have been approved by the governor and Cabinet.

The Legislature is poised to cut about $230 million from Florida Forever, the nation's largest conservation land-buying program. The Legislature is meeting in special session this week to address a projected $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in the state budget caused by the slowing economy.

The Cabinet voted unanimously in November to approve the purchase of 54 acres near the Natural Bridge battlefield state park in Leon County. The property includes relics of the Civil War and prehistoric settlements dating back 12,000 years. It also contains at least eight openings into a watery cave system where the St. Marks River flows underground.

Sink said another purchase in Central Florida that was recently approved by the Governor and Cabinet also was suspended because of the Legislature's proposed cuts.

"The fact they took those already committed projects off the table is not the best way to do business," Sink said. We have to suspend all the activities of the state that are not mission critical. There others out there that they (legislators) did not touch."

Gov. Charlie Crist said he also is concerned. He said he will get in touch with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the land-buying program, to determine what can be done to help the program.

Some environmental groups have said they're concerned that the cuts to Florida Forever will mean an end to the program, which has led to the protection of more than 535,000 acres since 2001, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Landowners invest time and good will in working through the state's purchase process and "with the stroke of a pen, it can all be undone," said Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

She said the state land-buying program provides economic benefits to communities as environmental destinations and park projects. Those can include roads, visitor centers and park campgrounds and lodging facilities.

"Florida has always been an eco-tourist destination and it's not just for our beaches," she said. "I think that has been a misconception. In some communities these properties may be their only draw for tourism dollars."

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Monday, January 12, 2009

Court refuses Georgia's Apalachicola River appeal

By Bruce Ritchie

Gov. Charlie Crist said he's joining with Florida residents and businesses today in applauding a U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear an appeal by Georgia dealing with Apalachicola River Flow.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been in court since 1990 battling over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. Alabama and Georgia want water for cities and industry while Florida wants water to protect fish in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry around Apalachicola Bay.

The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear an appeal of a district court ruling that said that a water deal struck between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2003 for using water from Lake Lanier was illegal. Alabama and Florida had sued to block the deal.

The Supreme Court's action "will allow Florida to continue our efforts to help protect the adequate flow of freshwater in the Apalachicola River," Crist said in a statement issued by his press office.

Crist also said the decision should provide the framework needed for resolution of the dispute. The governors met in 2008 but were unable to resolve their differences.

"I look forward to working with Governors Perdue and Riley in continuing our work to address the water issues facing our states," Crist said.

Perdue said in a written statement that he was disappointed that the court did not review the "flawed" District of Columbia Circuit Court ruling but added that the decision simply maintains the status quo at Lake Lanier, the huge federal reservoir that provides the Atlanta area with drinking water.

"We felt strongly the Supreme Court review of this case could have resolved a major piece of our ongoing water negotiations," Perdue said. He added that Georgia "now will move forward with continuing to work with our neighbors and other stakeholders to reach consensus on a plan that fairly shares our limited resources and adequately protects the headwaters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin."

Nuclear, coal not in renewable energy rule

By Bruce Ritchie

"Clean" Coal as renewable energy? No way.

That was the sentiment of a majority of the Florida Public Service Commission on Friday when it considered adopting a proposed rule to require utilities to produce a percentage of their energy from renewable sources.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say contribute to climate change, Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 asked the PSC to require that 20 percent of energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

The Legislature last year in a sweeping energy bill directed the commission to come up with a proposed standard by Feb. 1.

Commissioners said they understood that solar, wind and biomass are sources of renewable energy. Clean coal and nuclear also were discussed as part of the rule being considered on Friday.

But a commission majority stated that coal shouldn't be considered renewable energy, siding with environmentalists who said the rule is intended to promote the use of emerging technologies.

"I could never vote for clean energy if it includes coal," Commissioner Nancy Argenziano said. "I don't know of any 'clean' coal. I don't know how that got in there."

She also said nuclear energy, along with coal plants in which the carbon is captured and stored to prevent it from entering the atmosphere, may be considered "clean" energy -- but she said both still are not "renewable."

Commission Chairman Matthew M. Carter II and Commissioner Nathan A. Skop likewise said they couldn't vote for coal as renewable energy.

The commission voted to adopt the 20 percent requirement by 2020, siding with environmental groups which also opposed including coal and nuclear.

But Argenziano, a former Republican senator from Dunnellon, said the battle likely wouldn't end with the PSC. The recommendation now goes to the Legislature for consideration during its regular session, which begins in March.

"The Legislature, as I said before, is going to be the final determination," she said. "The battles are going begin after we leave this room."

Copyright by Bruce Ritchie

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Red tide research could be cut by Legislature

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida's fight against the microscopic menace of its beaches and coastal waters could be dealt a blow by spending cuts being considered by the Legislature, marine researchers say.

House and Senate committees this week recommended cutting spending for research into "red tide," a toxic microorganism that causes fish kills, contaminates shellfish and can cause respiratory problems for people. Scientists say the money is used to monitor red tide and predict where it will occur.

The Legislature is holding a special session to address a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in the 2008-09 state budget and was considering deep cuts to social services and higher education. This week in the Senate, the General Government Appropriations Committee recommended cutting $475,000 for red tide monitoring and research, a move that scientists said poses a setback for the recently increased research.

"We are hoping they won't cut, especially with the economic impact implications that red tide has," said Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. "We don't want to succumb back again to saying we don't know (what's happening with red tide). We want to try to find out."

But Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis and chairman of the Senate committee, said the Legislature is trying to maintain the program by not cutting it even more.

"Frankly the whole program was on the chopping block," Baker said. "We were able to save enough to at least keep it going."

Red tide is an algae that contains a toxin that can form offshore. Scientists are trying to determine the roles nutrients and other factors in the water and air play in creating red tide blooms.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this year received $5.1 million from the Legislature to study red tide and other harmful algal blooms. Mote Marine receives $1.5 million from the FWC to assist in monitoring and research.

Although no red tide has been detected this month, it has caused widespread beach closures in Southwest Florida and led to the closure of Apalachicola Bay for oyster harvesting for weeks in 2003 and 2005. Red tide killed 96 manatees in 2003 and 107 dolphins in 2004.

The state money has been used to create computer models to predict how red tide outbreaks can grow and how it can expand to other areas as it did in 2005 when winds blew it from Southwest Florida into the Panhandle, said Cynthia Heil, senior research scientist with the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

She said her agency hasn't determined where in the red tide program it will take the money from if the Legislature approves the cuts. But she said she is sure the cuts will cause harm.

"It could significantly impact our ability to monitor for red tides and all of the improvements gained in the last few years and knowledge (acquired)," she said.

Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, noted that it was the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that identified red tide research for possible cuts. Heil said red tide was identified as an alternative to across-the-board spending cuts for other programs.

Lawson also said he's concerned about cutting the program because red tide research remains critical to protecting Apalachicola Bay, where 95 percent of the state's oysters are harvested. The bay has a $134-million direct economic impact from seafood and recreation, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"Eliminating that (red tide research) would cause tremendous harm to the fishing industry," Lawson said. "We are going to try to get that restored."

Baker said everyone is having to experience painful cuts because the economic downturn has reduced tax revenues being collected by the state.

"Its still important -- it is vitally important," Baker said of the red tide research. "That is why we worked so hard to continue to fund them as we did. Every worthwhile program that we have is receiving cuts."

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at (850) 385-1774 or .

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Legislature considers eliminating environmental jobs

By Bruce Ritchie

House and Senate committees are considering recommending cutting more than 100 positions from environmental agencies to meet a projected $2.3 billion state budget deficit.

The Legislature is meeting in special session this week to find ways to reduce a $2.3 billion budget shortfall caused by the slow economy.

House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee Chairman Ralph Poppell
proposes eliminating 96 vacant positions from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to save $2.3 million in recurring general revenue. He also proposes eliminating 19.5 positions from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and 31 vacant positions from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Most of the positions targeted for elimination by the committee had remained vacant for more than 180 days. If any position remains vacant that long "we probably don't need it," Poppell, R-Vero Beach, said Monday.

"It would be a lot more fun if we could sit up here and be Santa Claus rather than Grinch," Poppell told a committee hearing. "But it's part of the process."

The House committee seems to be "fairly careful" about identifying budget cuts, said Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategies for The Nature Conservancy.

David McInnes, legislative director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told Poppell the department would propose alternatives to reduce the number of law enforcement and firefighter positions that would be eliminated under Poppell's proposal.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson last month said firefighter positions should be spared and that an agricultural inspection station on Interstate-10 in Pensacola would need to be closed if there were deeper law enforcement cuts.

The Senate General Appropriations Committee is considering cutting 33 positions from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission along with 34 positions from Agriculture and Consumer Services and 40 positions from DEP.

In the House, Poppell also proposes transferring $11 million for land management from a trust fund to the general fund to make up for the budget shortfall. Another $8 million in a land management trust fund for water management districts instead would go into general revenue.

He said the trust fund transfers were needed because revenues had fallen short. And he said the committee was trying to target vacant positions without hurting existing programs.

Bowman said the cuts in land management, which includes burning underbrush to reduce wildfire threats and improve wildlife habitat on state land, could cost the state more in the future.

Spokesmen for DEP and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the Legislature is early in the process of addressing the revenue shortfall and their agencies are working with legislative leaders and the Governor's Office.

"We are trying hard to minimize the impact on services and employees," commission spokeswoman Patricia Behnke said.

Both the House and Senate budget committees meet again Tuesday morning starting at 8 a.m.

Copyright Bruce Ritchie.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Whooping cranes being led to Florida for second flock

photo (c)

By Bruce Ritchie
One of the most impressive bird species in the world is expected to arrive this month in North Florida after being led by handlers in ultralight aircraft on a 1,200-mile journey from Wisconsin.

Whooping cranes, which stand nearly five feet tall with a wing span of 7-1/2 feet, were nearly extinct by 1941 when there were only 16 in the wild. But they're making a comeback with the help of a reintroduction program that involves raising the birds as hatchlings and leading them to Florida with ultralight aircraft to establish their new migration patterns.

For the first time, some birds will be led to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, located 20 miles south of Tallahassee, where they will be kept in a pen away from public viewing during their first winter here. But before they land at the refuge, their handlers hope to fly them over the town of St. Marks for a public viewing.

"We are eagerly awaiting this event," said Wakulla County resident Lynn Reynolds, a board member of the Apalachee Audubon Society.

"Even the picture is impressive with this flying tricycle up in the air with a bunch of birds trailing it," said Ben Fusaro, the Apalachee Audubon Society president. "Even if they were geese, it would be impressive."

Fourteen whooping cranes were being led across Alabama this week after they and the four ultralight aircraft began their journey on Oct. 17 from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The birds had been expected to arrive in St. Marks in mid-December but the journey has been slowed by winds and bad weather.

The flock will travel together to Jefferson County, northeast of Tallahassee, where it will be separated into two groups. Six to eight cranes will be led to the St. Marks refuge and the rest will go on to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, St. Marks Refuge Manager Terry Peacock said.

Operation Migration, a Canadian non-profit group, led a new flock of young whooping cranes to Florida each year beginning in 2001 with all of the birds going to Chassahowitzka. Previously the only flock of migrating cranes was in Texas.

The Florida birds have returned to the north on their own and maintain the annual migration pattern without human guidance.

In 2007, 17 newly-arrived birds at Chassahowitzka drowned in their pens after apparently being stunned by a lightning strike. That tragedy led the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to pick the St. Marks refuge as a second home for the birds, Peacock said.

The cranes' arrival this month will mark the end of a process of raising the young birds and preparing them for the journey.

Eggs from whooping crane nests in the wild are hatched in incubators with the sound of the ultralight aircraft to associate them with the noise. Biologists take one of the two nest eggs because typically only one chick usually survives because of competition in the nest for food, Peacock said.

Photo (c)

The chicks are raised by humans wearing suits that resemble whooping cranes. Feeding machines encourage the birds to walk, and the ultralight aircraft are operated nearby so that the birds don't fear them.

The trip south is arduous, with the birds and pilots flying in sub-freezing temperatures and hampered by lengthy delays caused by snow and other foul weather. Some birds can be reluctant to take flight with the ultralight aircraft or stop off on their own, so they have to be "rounded up" by the circling aircraft.

There are more than 30 stop-over locations with nighttime holding pens along the journey, many of them on the private tracts of sympathetic landowners. There are four ultralight aircraft, a spotter airplane and several support vehicles tracking the migration.

"This is the wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the Moon," John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said for a video produced by Operation Migration.

St. Marks refuge managers hope that once the birds arrive, they will stay in a three-acre fenced area where they will feed on periwinkle snails and fiddler crabs. The fence, built by refuge staff and more than 100 volunteers, will protect the birds from predators.

The fenced area also is off limits to people. Wildlife officials say the birds should avoid human contact during the first year for their own safety and to develop wild behavior.

Wakulla County can become a part of history by helping with the recovery of the species, Peacock said. Already, schoolchildren in Tallahassee are donating spare change toward installing a camera at the pen site to broadcast video on a Web site.

"We're trying to get the community to have buy-in," Peacock said. "Ownership (in the program) is how we get conservation of the cranes."

Keep up with the progress of the cranes at

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at 850-385-1774 or at

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.