Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Crist signs water bill, tells districts to OK permits in public

Gov. Charlie Crist today signed Senate Bill 2080, a controversial measure that allows permits to be approved by water management district staff without approval by their governing boards.

But Crist, in his transmittal letter accompanying the signed bill, also said he is asking the boards and their executive directors to continue bringing permits to board meetings for approval. He said the bill contained other beneficial provisions including renewing the existence of water districts in state law.

"Accordingly, I am asking the governing boards and executive directors to continue to include surface water and consumptive use permits on all board meeting agendas or other public meetings for discussion and transparency purposes," Crist wrote.

Crist faced a deadline today to sign or veto the bill or it would become law without his signature. He had raised concerns earlier this month in response to criticism of the bill but hadn't said whether he would sign it.

Environmental groups called for the governor's veto because the bill was amended late in the session to allow permits to be approved without a hearing. The bill also was amended to allow some permits for landowners to be extended from 20 to 50 years for alternative water supply projects.

Audubon of Florida Policy Director Eric Draper said he had thought the governor, if he was signing the bill, would give stronger direction.

"Generally we are disappointed with the fact this is now part of the law," Draper said. "But we are encouraged the districts are still going to have public hearings on the permits. We are going to try to get this (portion of the) law repealed."

David Still, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said he thinks the bill signing is a "win-win" for the governor because it preserves good parts of the bill. He said the governor's direction to the board members, whom he appoints, means that the permit approval process should stay the same.

"The governing board members are set in that position to set policy," Still said. "The governor's policy of the state right now is we do business as usual on permits. I think that is going to be the boards direction to staff."

The South Florida Water Management District will discuss implementation of the bill when it meets later this month. The district "is committed to an open and transparent process," spokesman Gabe Margasak said.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Winter Haven and sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Most of Fla. delegation remains opposed to drilling

Florida's two U.S. senators and 22 of its 25 representatives have signed a letter to House and Senate leaders reaffirming their opposition to oil drilling that could encroach upon military missions in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The Senate is considering an energy bill that would allow drilling within 10 miles of Florida's coast, rolling back a prohibition on drilling since 2005, according to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. He embarked on a tour across Florida earlier this month speaking in opposition to the proposal.

While Nelson and environmental groups say drilling threatens Florida's coastal economy, the delegation letter suggests drilling also threatens military missions in the Gulf. They cite a 2005 letter from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying drilling structures and associated development would be incompatible with military activities such as missile flights, low-flying drone aircraft, weapons testing and training.

In their letter dated Friday, the Florida senators and representatives said simulator training is not an adequate substitute for live-fire exercises.

"With renewed interest in developing natural gas and oil in the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf), we believe it is again imperative for Congress to reaffirm its authority on this issue," the letter stated. "Therefore we respectfully urge you to include language that protects this important natural asset from encroachment."

Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Orlando, signed the letter along with 12 Republican representatives and all 10 Democrats. Three Republican representatives did not sign: John Mica, Bill Posey and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Spokesmen for Posey and Ros-Lehtinen could not be reached for comment but a spokesman for Mica said he has consistently supported drilling in waters off the Florida coast.

Barney Bishop, president and CEO of pro-drilling Associated Industries of Florida, said polls in recent years have shown Florida residents support oil and gas drilling. He said drilling rigs need only be in place only temporarily and he questioned how oil and gas extraction could affect the military.

"These things can all be worked out," Bishop said. "Nothing is white or black anymore. They are all shades of gray. There is just not the will (among elected officials) to do it."

Meanwhile Monday, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that a husband of a top aide on energy issues previously lobbied for drilling off Florida's coast. Thomas Downey, husband of Obama aide and former EPA Secretary Carol Browner, was lobbyist for Securing America's Energy Future. To view the story, click here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

'Resilient' natural areas combat climate change, experts say

More than 50 representatives of environmental groups and state and federal agencies gathered in Leon County Thursday to discuss revising strategies for protecting Florida's wildlife in response to climate change.

With Florida's climate warming and sea levels rising gradually, scientists and state wildlife officials are concerned about loss of habitat, disruptions in migration patterns and other possible threats to the survival of wildlife and the ecosystems they depend on.

The Florida Wildlife Federation coordinated the Teaming with Wildlife coalition meeting Thursday at Tall Timbers Research Station as a follow-up to a climate change summit held last October in Orlando. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which held the summit, is beginning to revises its wildlife action plan with a stronger emphasis on responding to climate change.

"Keeping common species common" is the theme of the Teaming with Wildlife Coalition, said Jay Liles, a consultant to the Florida Wildlife Federation.

"We have hundreds of species that are nearing extinction or are in danger of extinction in this state that we are protecting," Liles said. "We also have a need to keep protecting species we all have seen for generations" to prevent them from becoming endangered.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2007 adopted a resolution noting the state's vulnerability to climate change and directing staff to engage with other experts and agencies on the issue of climate change.

"We are actually leading the nation and leading the world here," Commissioner Brian Yablonski of Tallahassee said. "This group here is the vanguard of this."

The group heard presentations on the federal climate-change legislation, the state Critical Lands and Water Identification Project (CLIP) mapping project and about northern bobwhite quail reintroduction coordinated through Tall Timbers Research Station north of Tallahassee.

The reintroduction program is encouraging prescribed burning every year or two in about 100,000 acres of identified forests to remove woody underbrush and restore native grasses that support quail and other wildlife, said Bill Palmer of Tall Timbers.

Proper management of habitat is needed to create more "resilient" ecosystems that can better withstand climate change or "whatever the next insult is," said Doria Gordon senior ecologist with The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter.

"We have huge amounts of natural areas in Florida right now that don't have budgets behind them for adequate management," she said. "We don't have good (prescribed) fire programs on the ground that we need to have. We have invasive species. We have hydrologic restoration that we need to do.

"That has to be the pinnacle for managing for wildlife in Florida and keeping common species common. Because at that point if we have well-managed natural systems that have the greatest flexibility and have healthy populations that can disperse naturally or interact however they will under the new climate situation, we will have the best possible outcome in terms of biota."

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not redistribute without permission. Gordon photo copyrighted by Mark Godfrey/TNC.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Group warns it will sue over Panama City airport

The Clean Water Network today announced it will sue the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority for alleged stormwater permit violations in April at its new airport.

The proposed airport, being built on a portion of the 4,000 acres of land donated by The St. Joe Co., has been the focus of economic development hopes and environmental controversy for more than six years. The airport lies within a region ranked high among scientists for its biological diversity.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection last month proposed a legal agreement that would require the Airport Authority to pay nearly $393,849 in fines and settlement costs for 72 water quality violations. But a new consent order proposed by DEP would reduce that amount to $299.649.

Having criticized DEP earlier this month for lax permit enforcement, the Clean Water Network today also blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for taking a "hands-off approach" to the problems and for allowing the airport to re-route and dredge streams without new permits.

"What we are trying to do is let the Airport Authority know that we are going to do our best to enforce the law" if state and federal agencies will not, said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida.

Airport Authority Executive Director Randy Curtis could not be reached for comment this afternoon. In a May 29 letter to DEP, Curtis said the airport board "takes very seriously its commitment to the environment and to making this airport a net environmental benefit to the state."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville said late this afternoon that agency officials who are familiar with the permit were not immediately available.

A DEP spokesman earlier this month said the department investigated and proposed the fines after it received complaints. In documents provided to FloridaEnvironments.com this week, DEP said it proposed reducing the fines despite finding eight new water quality violations at the site since May 19.

The Clean Water Network says the airport construction and lax enforcement have caused ecological devastation in creeks flowing to West Bay. Copies of DEP inspection reports cited by the group today were not immediately available.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hometown Democracy could prompt growth law changes, ex-DCA attorney says

The proposed Florida Hometown Democracy amendment could lead the Legislature to substantially weaken requirements for comprehensive planning in state law, says a former state planning official and land-use attorney in Tallahassee.

The Florida Division of Elections on Monday agreed to place the measure on the ballot for the 2010 general election in November. The proposed amendment would require voter approval of changes in local comprehensive plans, which contain land-use maps and growth policies for cities and counties.

Supporters of the proposal, including the Sierra Club's Florida chapter, say the amendment would wrest control of local planning decisions away from developers while opponents, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, say it would bring growth to a halt.

Cari Roth, who was the Department of Community Affairs general counsel under Gov. Jeb Bush until 2002, said Monday the proposal doesn't prevent the Legislature from changing growth management laws.

"I personally think it's the wrong way to go," she told the group Our Region Tomorrow, a regional planning initiative spearheaded by the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. Roth is now chair of the land use and government consulting practice with Bryant Miller Olive in Tallahassee.

"I think if we were to see that amendment pass there is nothing in the amendment that binds the Legislature to the current comprehensive plan amendment process," Roth said. "If it requires a vote on every comprehensive plan, the Legislature could diminish the amount of things that could be in the plan."

"In that way, it probably ends up taking the public out and diminishing the planning process."

In response, Ross Stafford Burnaman, co-founder of the Florida Hometown Democracy Inc. PAC, said, "I haven't talked to Cari about her theory. I don't share her view.

"Let's face it, some communities in Florida had comprehensive plans decades before the state legislation was passed (in 1985 requiring plans)," Burnaman said. "We have local home rule in our Constitution."

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.

Hometown Democracy Proposal Goes to Voters

By Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida

Ballot casters going to the polls in November 2010 will be asked whether changes to local comprehensive plans must be approved by local voters, state election officials announced Monday.

A week after the Florida Supreme Court ended a legal challenge to its initiative, Florida Hometown Democracy officials received notice from the Department of State saying their petition has a new name. Now called Amendment 4, the proposal will greet voters at the polls for the 2010 general election.

The New Smyrna-based group can now turn its full attention to a business-backed opposition movement that contends the measure will grind local development to a halt. Opponents of the Hometown Democracy effort have their own ballot push for a competing amendment.

Monday’s notification was especially sweet for Hometown Democracy co-founder Lesley Blackner, whose efforts have faced repeated review by the Florida Supreme Court and stiffening opposition from local and state lawmakers.

Last week’s 4-2 ruling by the state’s highest court ended a drive to whittle away at Hometown Democracy’s signature base by allowing voters to rescind their previous support. Though it did not elaborate, the high court’s ruling upheld a lower court opinion that a 2006 law allowing voters to revoke their signatures was unconstitutional.

“Every session the Legislature has changed the rules on citizens’ initiatives, making it harder and harder to change the constitution,” Blackner said.

Monday’s development was also seen as a rallying cry for opponents who say Amendment 4, if approved, would require even minor changes to local development rules to get citizen approval. Such delays will translate into scuttled projects and fewer jobs, the ripple effects of which will be felt across the state, opponents say.

“The 'Vote on Everything' amendment could mean a permanent recession for Florida's economy," said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and treasurer of Floridians for Smarter Growth, which is crafting its own constitutional amendment to supersede the Hometown Democracy proposal.

Blackner called disingenuous Smarter Growth efforts to propose its own amendment that would require voters to first turn in petitions from 10 percent of eligible voters before they could seek a referendum on local comp plan changes.

The chamber-backed initiative’s ballot language has been approved by the Florida Supreme Court, but the group still lacks the 676,811 verified signatures it needs to get on the ballot. Given the business-based group’s deep pockets and 443,510 verified signatures so far, it is likely to do so by the Feb.1 2010 deadline.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Panel explores Corps of Engineers, wetlands loss

JUPITER, Fla. -- Enigma.

Those were the one-word descriptions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers given by four panelists earlier this month during a discussion at Florida Atlantic University's branch in Jupiter.

St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman set the tone for journalists at the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment with his presentation on "Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss." The book, co-authoried with Matthew Waite of the newspaper, was published in March.

The Times reporters wanted to track what had happened to wetlands in Florida after President George H.W. Bush declared there would be "no net loss" of U.S. wetlands. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the newspaper it didn't keep track of how many permits they had issued or how many wetlands acres were destroyed.

So the reporters collected permit data from 1990 to 2003 and found that the federal agency had approved 12,000 permits for wetlands destruction in Florida and denied only one. They analyzed satellite imagery to determine that 84,000 acres of wetlands in Florida had been destroyed.

"We talked to a lot of people who worked for the Corps -- very good people, well-meaning people who feel they are handcuffed by a broken system," Pittman said. "One of them told us flat out, 'It's a huge scam. It's supposed to be protecting wetlands and it isn't.' "

In response, David Hobbie, chief of the regulatory division at the Corps' district office in Jacksonville, told FloridaEnvironments.com that he didn't work in the office when the Times first requested information and he can't dispute the newspaper's findings because he hasn't reviewed its data. The agency, Hobbie said, is improving its database and can provide the number of wetlands permits issued and their acreages within a week.

And as far as "no net loss" being broken, Hobbie said the policy seeks to account for the quality and function of wetlands -- not just provide equal replacement of the number of acres lost.

"All things being equal, all things are not equal," Hobbie said. "We don't want to trade off a Cadillac for a Pinto. At the same time we don't want to impact a Pinto wetland and expect a Cadillac in return."

In Jupiter, Pittman said the three panelists all were "integral" to book. They were Ret. Col. Terry Rice, former commander of the Corp's Jacksonville office; Michael Davis, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Army; and Royal C. Gardner, a law professor at Stetson University.

Rice, now an environmental consultant, described the former agency that he worked for as an "enigma" because it doesn't have any choice but to do what Congress tells it to do, such as issuing permits for wetlands destruction.

He recalled a Harper's magazine article in 1977 that labeled the Corps as "hired scapegoats."

"That is exactly, in many cases, the pressure the Corps gets from Congress -- to do many things," Rice said. " Sometimes they (Corps officials) take the heat for it. In fact, they always take the heat for it even though Congress did it."

He added, "Motivations aren't always what they look like they are."

Davis, now a vice president with the Keith and Schnars consulting firm, said the Corps is "paralyzed" because it has no sense of priorities. He said he failed to convince Corps officials to work with his development clients early in the permitting process to avoid delays and problems later.

"They won't come to the table but at the same time they are involved in some 25-foot boat dock and take five years to issue a permit," Davis said. "They are just paralyzed. They don't have a sense of how to move beyond that."

Gardner said he described the Corps as "decentralized" because the public expects agency officials to be "renaissance men and women" who are experts in every discipline.

"They need to know botany," he said. "They need to know soils. They need to know chemistry, they need to know water quality. They need to know economics -- how much do you require for financial assurances? They need to be experts in negotiation and mediation. They need to appreciate the difference between C-corporations and LLCs and know who is legally responsible."

"Nobody knows all those things," Gardner said. "It is an unrealistic expectation."

Pittman said "in many ways the Corps is schizophrenic" because it is a large bureaucracy that is responsible for both public works projects and regulatory enforcement.

Many of the agency's regulatory employees, he said, are biologists who are familiar with what wetlands do and how important they are. But they operate within that system that makes them feel handcuffed.

"So they become this very permissive permitting agency," he said. "They are going in a couple of different directions at the same time and end up paralyzed."

Hobbie said he agrees with Rice that the agency has a complex mission, and one that Congress expects it to fulfill.

"At times the Corps gets maybe some of the negative publicity or negative press because we are open," he said. "We try to be as transparent as possible. Sometimes when that happens not everybody agrees with what you do."

Read Adam Davis' critical review of Paving Paradise at Ecosystemmarketplace.com .

Read Pittman's response to Davis' review at Pavingparadise.org.

Panel photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com . Do not redistribute without permission.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Study: Apalachicola River flow could affect Gulf fisheries

By Bruce Ritchie

Reduced water flowing from Georgia and Alabama in the Apalachicola River in Florida could have wider effects than have been traditionally studied, according to Florida State University researchers.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court over water from the river system since 1990. Alabama and Georgia want water for cities, farms and recreation on upstream reservoirs while Florida for fish and wildlife in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry at Apalachicola Bay.

The FSU researchers found that low flows in the river coincided with reduced concentrations of microscopic plant-like organisms -- called phytoplankton -- in an area extending 125 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico, said Steven Morey, a research scientist at FSU's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies. FSU announced the publication of the study in a news release today.

Scientists suspect that annual changes in phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, can affect the availabilty of food for young fish along the continental shelf. They include reef fish such as grouper that spawn on the outer shelf edge and use areas closer to shore for nursery habitat.

"We expanded our understanding of the area of significant influence of the river," Morey said. "Most of the (research) work in the past was within the bay or river itself. Now we have expanded the horizon we need to be concerned about to offshore habitat hundreds of kilometers offshore."

The political fight over water has subsided somewhat this year because of heavy rains across the southeast. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates federal dams on the river, ended drought operations on June 1. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in May asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to lead a study of water needs within the river system.

The FSU researchers examined the seasonal and year-to-year changes in river flow caused by changes in precipitation. They also used satellite data and computer models of ocean circulation to identify a region 125 miles offshore in which changes in ocean color indicated changes in phytoplankton concentrations related to the river flow.

The researchers published their findings in the journal "Continental Shelf Research."

DISCLOSURE: FloridaEnvironments.com Editor Bruce Ritchie worked under a contract with FSU that ended May 31. He wrote an article for FSU's Coastal and Marine Laboratory Web site about grouper research conducted by the lab staff. The Marine Lab did not participate in the research featured in this article.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wiley to become chief of Florida wildlife agency

Assistant Executive Director Nick Wiley will become chief of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission when Executive Director Ken Addad retires in December.

The commission, meeting in Crystal River, voted Wednesday to name Wiley to the position without conducting a search for Haddad's replacement. All seven commissioners expressed support for Wiley and praised his leadership role within the agency, according to an agency news release.

“This is not a ‘spur of the moment’ decision,” Chairman Rodney Barreto said. “I do believe going through a long, drawn-out process of selection wouldn’t be beneficial to the agency. And I doubt we would come away with a different result even if we do go through a process. The mere fact that this is unanimous should give everyone comfort.”

Wiley, 47, began his career with the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in 1988. He moved his way up the ranks and was named assistant executive director in 2008.

Haddad said he intends to remain fully engaged within the agency until he retires and then plans to remain active in the fish and wildlife arena.

Wiley's appointment now goes to the Florida Senate for confirmation.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fla. Supreme Court rules for "Hometown Democracy"

The Florida Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Florida Hometown Democracy Inc. in the PAC's challenge to a state law allowing voters to revoke their petition signatures to place measures on the ballot.

Florida Hometown Democracy is pushing a proposal to require that comprehensive plan changes be approved by voters. Supporters say they hope the measure will put decisions on growth in the hands of voters, but opponents say it will bring growth in the state to a halt and hurt the economy.

The Legislature in 2005 adopted a state law that allows petition signers to change their minds. Florida Hometown Democracy supporters said that made it more difficult to get the required 676,811 signatures necessary to place the measure on the ballot.

"This is so much a load off of my mind," Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach, a founder of Florida Hometown Democracy, said when told of the Florida Supreme Court ruling late today. "The whole point of the revocation process was to give our opponents opportunities to keep us off the ballot."

Last week, Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson said he expected the measure to be placed on the ballot, either by the Supreme Court or by state elections officials in February when they certify the vote. The chamber is opposing the ballot initiative.

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections was not immediately available tonight for a response.

FWC adopts freshwater turtle ban

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission today adopted what the agency says are the toughest regulations against harvesting freshwater turtles.

Prompted by concerns that Florida turtles were being shipped to China for food, commissioners in April agreed to consider a regulation that would virtually ban the commercial harvest of turtles. Meeting today in Crystal River, the agency voted to adopt the ban.

"This is the right thing to do," commission Chairman Rodney Barret said, according to an FWCC news release. "Florida has become a leader with this vote."

The rule prohibits taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list: The Alligator snapping turtle, the Suwannee cooter and Barbour's map turtle. Turtles that look like those, common snapping turtles, other cooters and the Escambia map turtle, also will be protected.

Individuals will be allowed to take one fresh water turtle per day for non-commerical use. The transport of more than one turtle per day is prohibited.

Turtle farmers and reptile breeders in April argued against the regulations, saying there were plenty of turtles in the wild and they must be able to capture turtles to use as brood stock in their farms. The commission will allow the continued take of some turtles for turtle farms until 2011, when it will be reviewed.

Turtle farm operator Dickson McRee of Crystal River said he didn't bother going to the meeting today in his home town because he thought it was a done deal.

"I'm probably just honestly going to surrender," he said.

For more on the commission actions related to fresh water turtles, visit www.myfwc.com.

Wildlife underpass skewered; Founder fires back

Supporters of a proposed wildlife underpass along U.S. Highway 27 north of Tallahassee received unwelcome attention in national media to their project on Tuesday when a Republican U.S. senator identified it as wasteful spending.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., included the "Lake Jackson Ecopassage" as one the top 10 of 100 examples of wasteful spending that he had identified in the federal stimulus package. The project would include building a 4-1/2 foot retaining wall to direct wildlife to three culverts going under the road, which is on a berm built across an arm of Lake Jackson.

State transportation officials say the project is needed to prevent motorists from running over some of the 100 or more turtles, alligators and other wildlife that attempt to cross the divided four-lane highway on some days. But Coburn's report said existing efforts to protect turtles along U.S. 27 already are working pretty well.

"To borrow money that we don't have to spend on things we don't need in the name of economic stimulus when there are things we could spend it on that we do need," Coburn told ABC News.

ABC opened its report by saying, "Why did the turtle cross the road? Because $3.4 million in stimulus money had not been spent to build him a tunnel. That's about to change. "

But Matt Aresco, a biologist who founded the Lake Jackson Ecopassage effort, said the Coburn report completely misrepresented the project by failing to state that the project is not just one culvert but three culverts. And he said ABC News and other reports just parroted the Coburn report without emphasizing that the project is not new and that the turtles and alligators crossing the highway pose a serious safety threat to motorists.

"Another thing they don't talk about is the highway built across the lake bottom four decades created the problem," Aresco said. "All we are trying to do is fix the problem for a highway that is already built."

The ABC News report and some others mentioned the safety issue, but only after highlighting the project as wasteful spending. They didn't point out that Aresco and his supporters have been working nearly 10 years to get the project built.

In that time, Aresco and supporters say they have saved more than 8,800 turtles by creating a temporary fabric fence and carrying turtles across the road. Hundreds of schoolchildren have taken up the cause of building the Lake Jackson Ecopassage and local officials have supported the project.

But Aresco said the fabric fence is only a temporary solution. The temporary device must be monitored three times a day, alligators and some wildlife still can cross over it and the fence falls down, is knocked down or is chewed up by critters trying to get across the road, Aresco said.

"They're saying the temporary fabric fence and wooden stakes that's working just fine?" Aresco said. "The minute (we) couldn't do it any more those fences would fall down and that would be the end of it."

Coburn report: "100 Stimulus projects: A second opinion"

Lake Jackson Ecopassage web site.

ABC World News Tonight: "Wasteful stimulus spending with your money": Go to abcnews.go.com/wn and click on the link under "Now Playing"

Wall Street Journal: "GOP faults some stimulus projects"

Propublica: "Battle of the Stimulus, project by project"

Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino: "More to Florida Turtle crossing than Oklahoma Sen. Coburn claims"

2002 St. Petersburg Times story: "Sticking his neck out for Turtles"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fees for most popular state parks going up $3

Honeymoon Island State Park

The cost of visiting most Florida state parks will be going up July 1 with the entrance fees to some of the most popular parks increasing by $3 per vehicle.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced new entrance fees on Monday. A DEP spokeswoman today said the fee increases, the first statewide in five years, are expected to generate $7.2 million in fiscal year 2009-10.

Fees will increase to $8 per vehicle at eight of the 10 most popular parks: Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, Cape Florida on Key Biscayne, John Pennekamp in Key Largo, St. Andrews in Panama City Beach, Sebastian Inlet at Melbourne Beach, Lovers Key in Fort Myers Beach, Anastasia near St. Augustine Beach and Bahia Honda on Big Pine Key.

Those eight parks accounted for 6.5 million visitors in fiscal year 2007-08, according to data from the state Division of Recreation and Parks. The cost of entering those eight parks now is $5 except for Pennekamp and Bahia Honda, which charge $6 per vehicle.

Park fee increases were included as revenue in Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed fiscal year 2009-10 budget in February. DEP Secretary Mike Sole said May 27, when Crist signed the budget, that the fees would help cover operating costs for the parks.

"We also want to protect what I call the 'affordability factor,' " Sole said. "I think that's critical in the fact they (state parks) are affordable for us to go use."

DEP isn't closing any state parks as was considered earlier in response to the Legislature's requests for deeper budget reductions from all agencies.

"This fee increase will help keep Florida's state parks open for residents and visitors to experience while still proving to be one of the most affordable activities in the state," DEP Deputy Secretary Bob Ballard said in the DEP news release issued Monday.

Fees will increase by $1 per vehicle at many other state parks including Gasparilla Island near Boca Grande and Stump Pass Beach in Englewood, which also were top 10 beaches in 2007-08. The $2-per-vehicle entrance fee for those two parks will go up to $3 on July 1.

The entrance fees at a few other parks will increase from $4 per vehicle now to $6. They include Alfred B. Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee, Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, St. Joseph Peninsula in Gulf County and Wakulla Springs in Wakulla County.

There is no entrance fee at 39 state parks, though many of those lack facilities for visitors. The list of new park fees is available at www.floridadep.org .

Top 10 state parks/VISITORS (07-08)
Honeymoon Island - 1,085,120
Cape Florida - 893,543
John Pennekamp - 878,939
St. Andrews - 877,788
Sebastian Inlet - 830,448
Lovers Key - 813,539
Gasparilla Island - 702,713
Anastasia - 637,762
Bahia Honda - 517,868
Stump Pass Beach - 503,926

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

UF plans cellulosic ethanol plant at Buckeye near Perry

The University of Florida, Buckeye Technologies Inc. and Myriant Technology LLC today announced plans for a research and demonstration plant near Perry to explore ways to produce "environmentally-friendly" plastics or other petroleum-products from cellulosic ethanol.

The plant will be located at Buckeye Florida's 90-acre site where the company produces pulp products that other companies use to produce disposable diapers and automotive filters and cellulose for food products.

According to the University of Florida, the project will seek to combine technologies that have been developed at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences along with those licensed to the Verenium Corp. and Myriant. Those technologies could extend the benefits of cellulosic ethanol production to other products than just fuel.

“We’re trying to break our dependence on petroleum," UF professor Lonnie Ingram said in a news release from IFAS. "Fuel is a big part of that, but it’s not the only part.”
The plant may use wood products or wood waste produced by Buckeye Florida and may lead to new products being produced there, plant spokesman Dan Simmons said.

He said the UF plant will use a minimal 1.6 million gallons of water per year and won't need its own wastewater treatment permit because its discharge will be treated through Buckeye Florida's system. The company's pollution of the Fenholloway River has been controversial for at least the past 15 years, though Simmons said Buckeye has reduced water use, is using less chemicals and is removing organic matter from its waste discharge.

To read the UF IFAS news release, click here.
Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com.

Crist: No position yet on federal drilling legislation

Gov. Charlie Crist said this morning he hasn't taken a position on a federal energy bill that Sen. Bill Nelson says would allow drilling within 10 miles of Florida's Gulf of Mexico coastline.

Crist today signed five bills related to law enforcement at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles headquarters in Tallahassee. He was shown new safety equipment and provided a demonstration of the search techniques of a Florida Highway Patrol drug-sniffing dog.

On Monday, Nelson was touring the Florida Panhandle to drum up opposition against the energy bill, which he said threatens Florida's Gulf beaches and military missions at Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases. Military officials have said in the past that the effects of drilling on missions would be determined when there is a drilling proposal to be analyzed.

Crist reopened debate about drilling off Florida's coast last year -- amid $4-per-gallon gas prices -- when he said he would support drilling if it was far enough away from the coastline and could be done without causing environmental harm. He raised concerns during the legislative session about House Bill 1219 to allow drilling in Florida waters between three and 10 miles from shore. The bill died after the Senate refused to consider it.

Asked by FloridaEnvironments.com whether he'd taken a position on the federal energy bill, Crist only said, "No, I haven't."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Nelson threatens federal energy bill filibuster

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson today said in Tallahassee he will filibuster if necessary to block an energy bill that contains a provision that would allow oil drilling within 10 miles of Florida's Gulf of Mexico coastline.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last week created what Nelson called a "ruckus" by adding the provision to a federal energy bill to allow drilling, which Nelson says threatens Florida's beaches and its tourism economy and military aircraft training missions in the Gulf.

"You see this puts Senator Martinez (R-Fla.) and me in the position we will simply not allow this to occur," Nelson, D-Fla., told reporters in his Tallahassee office. "We will use and I will use every parliamentary tool available to me to grind the Senate to a halt if I have to."

Nelson said he had supported the energy bill because it will help produce alternative energy sources. But he said the proposed drilling provision violates a 2005 compromise law that prohibited drilling within 100 miles of Pensacola, 237 miles from Tampa Bay and 300 miles from Naples.

"We don't want to jeopardize the energy bill," Nelson said. "But when you threaten national security and the economy of Florida we have no choice -- we are going to stop it."

Outside the federal Courthouse in Tallahassee, attorney Pace Allen and geologist Mitch Covington argued that oil drilling and production could be done without threatening Florida's environment or the military missions.

"If we drill here safely and cleanly we won't depend on the dirty oil drilling in other countries where they don't care about spillage," Covington said.

Fla. Supreme Court grants "Hometown Democracy" motion

A PAC that wants Florida residents to vote on proposed growth measures won something of a court victory this week.

Florida Hometown Democracy Inc., a political action committee, is pushing an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would require voter approval of land-use map and policy changes in local comprehensive plans. The proposal faces opposition from business groups, which have created a PAC to battle the amendment, and even some environmentalists.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved Florida Hometown Democracy's motion to expedite a legal appeal by the state Division of Elections. Florida Hometown Democracy won a lower court case challenging a state law that allows voters to rescind their signatures to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.

That state law "gives an advantage to people opposing an initiative," said Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach, a co-founder of Florida Hometown Democracy. "Here we are, we've gone out and tried to get our petitions and we've followed the rules and every year they (state officials) change the rules."

A spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections declined to comment on the Supreme Court action.

FHD's rival PAC, Floridians for Better Growth, expects the ballot measure to go to voters either by a Supreme Court ruling soon or by approval by state elections officials in February when they verify petition signatures, said Mark Wilson, the group's treasurer. He also is president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Critics of the Florida Hometown Democracy measure say it would halt development by creating delays for voters to approve numerous comprehensive plan changes both large and small. The Sierra Club supports the measure but 1000 Friend of Florida is opposing it.

"It will create a permanent recession in Florida -- it's as simple as that," Wilson said.

Friday, June 12, 2009

New Bay Co. airport faces possible DEP fines

The Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority is facing possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for potential water quality violations caused by erosion at its new airport now under construction.

The proposed airport, being built on a portion of the 4,000 acres of land donated by The St. Joe Co., has been the focus of economic development hopes and environmental controversy for more than six years.

Critics said the airport isn't needed and will threaten the region's rich biological diversity. But Gov. Charlie Crist said in 2007 the airport will serve as a national model for "economic transformation and environmental preservation."

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection last month proposed a legal agreement that would require the Airport Authority to admit to 72 violations and pay $393,849 in civil penalties and settlement costs. The Airport Authority also would have to take steps during construction that are intended to prevent dirty water from flowing from the site.

"They assured us they were taking necessary steps to control those issues," said Shawn Hamilton, ombudsman in DEP's Pensacola district office. "We concluded those steps were not effective and it was time to take enforcement action."

Airport Authority Executive Director Randy Curtis could not be reached for comment today. The Airport Authority has provided two letters to DEP in response to the proposed fines and violations.

In a May 29 letter, Curtis wrote that the construction site received an unusual 21 inches of rainfall between March 17 and April 13, resulting in a presidential disaster declaration for the area for flooding. He also said the airport authority had hired an environmental consultant to assess damage and to work to avoid it in the future.

"As we discussed, the Airport Board takes very seriously its commitment to the environment and to making this airport a net environmental benefit to the state," Curtis wrote.

This week, the Clean Water Network of Florida said it will sue the airport construction contractor, Phoenix Construction Co. of Lynn Haven, under the Clean Water Act for alleged violations.

The Clean Water Network also said polluted stormwater runoff from the construction site was "ecologically devastating" to streams and springs downstream from the construction site as well as shellfish beds and marshes in West Bay. The environmental damage couldn't be verified with documents provided Thursday by DEP.

And the group blamed DEP for a "laid-back" approach to enforcement that had allowed problems to continue.

In response, Hamilton said the department took action when it received notice of the violations and now is proposing the consent order with fines.

James Finch, president of Phoenix Construction Co., said the Airport Authority hired a construction manager to supervise construction. "I don't know what (legal) standing the Clean Water Network would have with me," he said.

"Everybody has ruled against them (in previous legal challenges) and the airport is about 80 percent complete, so they have to do something," Finch said.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not redistribute without permission.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wildlife agency advocates state land deal with commissioner

Florida wildlife officials are encouraging a state panel to recommend paying one of their bosses, state wildlife commissioner Ronald Bergeron, not to develop his land so that Florida panther habitat in Hendry County can be protected.

The state Acquisition and Restoration Council votes Friday to recommend a new state lands purchase list to the governor and Cabinet. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWCC) representative today urged the council to add to the list 2,312 acres of the Green Glades Ranch owned by Bergeron.

FWCC Executive Director Ken Haddad or his designee also have been cleared to vote on the Acquisition and Restoration Council by a land acquisition attorney at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. As one of seven members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Bergeron is responsible for hiring and firing Haddad as the agency's executive director.

"We were being really careful that nothing about this was viewed as a conflict," said Nick Wiley, the agency's assistant executive director. "We followed all the procedures to make sure it was OK to go forward with what we were doing there."

Haddad was out of town this week and another FWCC official will take his place at the Acquisition and Restoration Council meeting, according to Wiley. Bergeron, an engineering contractor in Fort Lauderdale, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Florida law does not prohibit agency officials from voting on an item as long as they file a voting conflict form with the agency upon whose board they serve, DEP Assistant General Counsel Harold "Bud" Vielhauer wrote in an e-mail to the FWCC.

Florida Ethics Commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman confirmed that reading of state law. While state law prohibits local officials from voting when there is a conflict, state agency officials are not prohibited as long as the declare the conflict, Stillman said.

Bergeron, president and owner of Bergeron Family of Companies, is willing to consider a deal that allows him to own the property while the state purchases a "conservation easement," an agreement that pays the landowner not to develop the property.

Some Acquisition and Restoration Council members today questioned why the land was being considered for the purchase list when state officials had not inspected the property. DEP and state wildlife officials said an analysis of property surrounding the proposed Kissimmee Billy Strand project, with more than 2,300 acres in Hendry County, had identified Bergeron's Green Glades Ranch as a valuable addition.

Wildlife officials say the purchase would protect habitat for Florida panthers and many other wildlife species. The Bergeron property would also would connect the Panther Glades purchase project to the north with Big Cypress National Preserve to the south.

According to Wiley, Bergeron has said he does not want to pressure staff and he wants the agency to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Wiley also noted that any future deal would be negotiated by DEP's Division of State Lands and would be approved by the governor and Cabinet as with many other state land purchases.

"Any citizen landowner should have the ability to engage in this process," Wiley said.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not redistribute without permission.

Controversy catches water bill sponsor by surprise

A Senate co-sponsor of a controversial environmental bill says he didn't know it was amended to include a provision that critics say would limit public input on permitting decisions by the state's five water management districts.

Environmental groups including Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and the Putnam County Environmental Council are calling on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto SB 2080. Crist raised concerns about the bill last month but he said Tuesday he hasn't decided whether to sign it.

Sen. Carey Baker, R-Mount Dora and a co-sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday he was not aware of a provision in the bill that allows water management district executive directors to approve permits without votes of the districts' governing boards unless the directors choose to deny the permit.

"I was quite surprised," Baker said. "When you look at the language in the bill it doesn't say all the things I'm telling you (the bill says). It's sort of technical language (you wouldn't understand) unless you had time to dig through it which we didn't have time to at the end of session."

Baker said the bill was sponsored primarily by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, and that Alexander allowed Baker to have his bill dealing with "Florida-Friendly Yards" to be amended to the bill, making Baker the co-sponsor.

Baker's original bill, supported by environmentalists, would prevent homeowners associations from restricting the use of Florida-Friendly yard practices that are designed to need less water and fertilizer.

On April 30, the next to last day of the regular session to vote on bills, the Senate approved an amendment (Barcode 256072) that included the provision directing water management district executive directors to make permitting decisions. Alexander could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The provision also was included in House bills 7137 and 7143, which won House approval but died in the Senate without being voted on. Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and sponsor of both bills, also couldn't be reached for comment.

Mike Slayton, deputy director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, said the amendment to SB 2080 also was explained by Alexander on the Senate floor before it was adopted.

"If you are going to say it was a sneak attack, it was the slowest, most obvious sneak attack one could make," Slayton said.

Environmental groups say the bill would limit public access to the approval process. And former state Rep. David Flagg of Gainesville, who serves on the board of the Suwannee River Water Management District, agrees.

"I'm not looking for a fight," Flagg said. "I'm not looking to be a non-team player with the governor or Sen. Alexander, whom I know. I just think this is a bad bill as it relates to the seriousness of water management and the importance water-management districts and their governing boards ... as we have more consumption and loss of water in Florida."

The Florida Home Builders Association is supporting SB 2080 because it would allow water-management district boards to focus their time on other issues involving their agencies. "This is not only good for the environment; it's also good for business," association spokeswoman Edie Ousley said in an e-mail.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Land buy to protect Naval air station approved

For a larger map, click here.

Cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense, Santa Rosa County and an environmental group helped the state buy 1,389 acres in the Florida Panhandle, purchase supporters said.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet today voted to approve buying the land near the Navy's Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County from The Nature Conservancy for $5.1 million.

The purchase not only protects Big Coldwater Creek, a designated state canoe paddling trail, but Navy representatives said it also allows helicopter and other aircraft missions to continue at Whiting Field. The Nature Conservancy paid International Paper $6 million for the property in 2006 -- when land prices were higher.

"Without these partnerships, as I mentioned, we cannot continue our mission," said Tom Vincent, Whiting Field commanding officer. "This is a huge huge win for us."

After closing occurs prior to an Oct. 1 deadline, the property will become part of Blackwater River State Forest. The property includes nearly two miles of Big Coldwater Creek, a spring-fed tributary of Blackwater River.

The Navy could pitch in 25 percent of the purchase price, or $1,275,000 as part of an agreement with the state to buy land to protect military operations. Elsewhere in the U.S., development near military installations has led to complaints from neighbors about aircraft flights and artillery practice.

The Nature Conservancy says it works closely with the military to conserve land around bases. In the Florida Panhandle, an area that has been identified by scientists as a hotspot for biological diversity is located within the flight patterns of aircraft flying from Navy and Air Force installations.

The Department of Defense works with neighboring landowners to make sure the ecology of the military land remains viable for future generations, said Deborah Keller, senior policy representative for The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter.

"The department has been an incredible partner to the environment, not just on the buffering but how they manage the land," Keller said.

The state purchase also will allow use of off-highway vehicles on 621 "disturbed" acres within the purchase area where planted pine trees have been harvested but were not replanted. The Division of Forestry will use $1.2 million collected in fees for state titles on off-highway vehicles to help pay for the purchase.

Crist signs invasive species bill

Gov. Crist hands pen to Ag Commissioner Charles Bronson after signing HB 255

Flanked by Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and state Rep. Leonard Bembry, Gov. Charlie Crist this morning signed HB 255 to formalize Florida's participation with other states in battling invasive pests.

Farmers are struggling within the slumping economy while also battling species such as the tropical soda apple from South America, Bronson said. The plant's seeds, contained in an orange fruit, are distributed by livestock and wildlife.

"It becomes so invasive you can't grow a crop, you can't grow cattle, you can't do anything if it takes over," Bronson told reporters during a bill-signing ceremony in the Governor's Office.

Sponsored by Bembry, a Democrat from Greenville, HB 255 codifies Florida's participation in the Interstate Pest Control Compact, which consists of 37 states including Florida.

Florida paid $39,342 between 1995 and 2001 to participate in the compact and received $240,522 for noxious weed and tomato virus controls, according to a House staff analysis of HB 255.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Panel offers mixed views on Everglades land buy

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK -- Representatives of the Everglades Foundation and the Florida Park Service say a revised U.S. Sugar Corp. purchase proposal will help restore the "River of Grass." But an attorney representing the Miccosukee indian tribe says it will further delay restoration projects already under way.

They participated in a panel discussion before visiting journalists last Thursday as part of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment at Florida Atlantic University.

The South Florida Water Management District on May 13 approved a revised deal -- subject to financing -- to buy 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. for $536 million. The purchase was scaled back from the original proposal -- announced a year ago by Gov. Charlie Crist -- to buy 187,000 acres for $1.34 billion.

The proposed U.S. Sugar purchase allows the use of existing technology to speed up Everglades restoration, said Thomas Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation.

"We can do it better, faster and cheaper than contemplated in the old plan," Van Lent said. "My perspective is, 'What's not to like about that?' It sounds like a very smart approach on the Everglades if you want restoration and want it as soon as possible."

But Nick Aumen, a National Park Service aquatic ecologist, said he had to give a "schizoid" answer to the question of whether he supports the purchase.

He said he has believed that "big change" was needed for restoration to be successful. But he also said the state already has begun cutting back on needed water quality monitoring to divert money towards the purchase.

"I don't think we'll have the stars line up possibly ever -- or at least for decades -- to do something this bold again," Aumen said. "On the other side, I see a real downside in that (deal) because of the cost."

Lehtinen, who as U.S. attorney sued the state in the 1980s over the quality of water flowing into Everglades National Park, said there's no plan for using the U.S. Sugar Corp. land. Meanwhile, the state is delaying or abandoning other needed restoration projects, he said.

"Nothing in this new plan conceivably gets out of the ground in 10 years -- 20 years minimum to get anything out of the ground," Lehtinen said. "And probably never because there is no money for it."

A South Florida Water Management District spokesman did not return calls from FloridaEnvironments.com seeking comment. The district declined to participate in the panel discussion because of a lawsuit filed by one of the panelists, presumably Lehtinen, panel organizers said.

Photo and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not redistribute without permission.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Group looks to bring drilling vote to ballot

By Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida

With efforts stalled over whether to allow drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, the fight may go directly to Florida voters.

At least one group is attempting to craft and promote a constitutional amendment to not only allow but require the state to push for the discovery and recovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico up to 125 miles from shore.

The group, Floridaoil.org, is taking its message of energy self-sufficiency to anyone who will listen.

“We need to start drilling and pumping our own oil,” said Don Baldauf, a home security business owner in Bradenton and founder of the group. “Regardless of how you feel about renewable energy, we’re still going to need it for other things beyond gas and fuel.”

The group is seeking legal help to craft one or more proposed amendments that would use state submerged lands laws to expand Florida waters out to 125 miles and require the state to issue permits to U.S. companies to drill for oil.

The group is far from getting on the ballot - Floridaoil.org is operating on a shoestring. Since opening its campaign account last fall, the group has raised $310 according to the most recent Division of Election figures.

But despite its diminutive size, the group has still gotten more than a little attention in its quest to write a proposal and secure nearly 700,000 signatures to get it on the ballot. Months after gas prices climbed over $4 a gallon and crude oil approached 4150 a barrel last summer, the call for increased domestic production intensified.

Oil discovered should be used domestically, backers contend. The group has also advocated requiring the state to permit at least one new refinery within the state.

”Our country has lost control of its destiny and it is time to take that control back,” said Baldauf, whose political resume includes an unsuccessful run for a Congressional seat last year as an unaffiliated candidate.

A proposal to lift a 20-year ban on drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast popped up during the recently concluded session. A stealth amendment offered by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and introduced in a House committee took opponents by surprise.

The measure passed the House but died after Senate President Jeff Atwater refused to consider it, saying the issue needed a more deliberate vetting.

“The issue has great traction,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, which represents the industry but is not involved with the Floridaoil.org amendment drive.

Mica has spoken to Baldauf and is familiar with the group’s efforts but has made no decision on whether to join forces.

“There is some merit to letting it go on its own,” Mica said. “That way, it’s not an industry-backed effort.”

For his part, Baldauf knows he faces long odds. Any proposal must pass Supreme Court muster and receive statewide support, a tall order before a February 1 deadline if it is to be included on the 2010 ballot.

“If nothing else, it makes for great theater,” Baldauf said.