In Fla., Cautious Hope For Everglades Protection

Dec 5, 2011
Originally published on December 5, 2011 8:46 am

At the annual dinner of the Everglades Foundation recently, there was a surprise guest: Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The governor made a brief appearance before the group with some reassuring words.

"We are absolutely focused on making sure the right thing happens for the Everglades," he said.

It's a new focus for the Republican, a businessman who's a relative newcomer both to Florida and to politics. After taking office earlier this year, his statements and actions suggested he saw environmental protection not so much as a goal, but as a problem.

With the legislature, he dismantled a powerful state agency, the Department of Community Affairs, which helped control development and protected natural areas, including the Everglades. He also eliminated funding for Florida Forever, a program that allowed the state to buy and preserve land in critical areas.

Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club says Scott's record on Everglades restoration is clear.

"Up until now, it would have to be negative," he says.

The move that has had the most direct impact involves the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency charged with restoring the Everglades. Scott approved a plan that forced the District to slash its budget and draw down its reserves.

"As a result, there were massive layoffs," Ullman says. "Especially hard hit were Everglades science."

More than 250 employees, including many top scientists, were let go. Also gone is much of the money set aside for land acquisition, including more than 100,000 acres of land now owned by U.S. Sugar, available to the state under a deal brokered by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

New Initiatives

On his cattle ranch north of Lake Okeechobee, Woody Larson has a load of visitors on board a swamp buggy. It's a high-rise, all-terrain vehicle useful in running cattle across marshy areas on his ranch.

Larson has just signed an agreement with the state of Florida that will pay him tens of thousands of dollars each year to turn some of his ranch into wetlands. Instead of using canals to drain nutrient-rich water that eventually ends up in the Everglades, he's keeping it here.

The head of the South Florida Water Management District, Melissa Meeker, says projects like this are a cost-effective way to improve water quality in the Everglades.

"When you hear the governor and the administration talk about public-private partnerships, this is exactly the type of thing we're talking about," she says. "We're looking for innovative ways that we can work to reduce the upfront capital investment of the state and taxpayer dollars."

Meeker says programs like this aren't a substitute for land acquisition. To restore the Everglades, she says Florida will have to buy and preserve more land.

When Meeker talked about it with Scott recently, she says he agreed.

"We started to talk about ideas and he said, 'Stop. If we agree on a plan, we'll get it funded.' So, he's committed to getting it funded, so I don't feel that will be a huge hurdle for us," she says.

Former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, says the Everglades can only be fixed by the state and federal government working in partnership. Graham worries that marriage right now is on the rocks.

"One of the leadership responsibilities of the governor will be to restore that level of confidence that the federal government has a reliable partner that is capable of delivering on its half of the partnership for Everglades salvation," he says.

Graham and other Everglades advocates say they're encouraged by what Scott and others in his administration are saying. Now, though, they're impatient for action.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to Florida, where Governor Rick Scott says his administration is focused on restoring the Everglades. To environmentalists and others concerned about the future of the so-called River of Grass, that is welcome news, although many are skeptical about what he says. In his first year in office, Rick Scott has overseen big budget cuts in the programs and agencies vital to Everglades restoration. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At the annual dinner of the Everglades Foundation, recently, there was a surprise guest.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: First off, thank you very much. And...

ALLEN: Governor Rick Scott made a brief appearance before the group with some reassuring words.

SCOTT: We are absolutely focused on making sure the right thing happens for the Everglades.

ALLEN: It's a new focus for Republican Rick Scott, a businessman who's a relative newcomer, both to Florida and to politics. After taking office earlier this year, his statements and actions suggested he saw environmental protection, not so much as a goal, but as a problem.

With the legislature, he dismantled a powerful state agency, the Department of Community Affairs. That office helped control development and protected natural areas, including the Everglades. He also eliminated funding for Florida Forever, a program that allowed the state to buy and preserve land in critical areas. Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club, says Scott's record on Everglades restoration is clear.

JONATHAN ULLMAN: Up until now, it would have to be negative.

ALLEN: The move that has had the most direct impact involves the South Florida Water Management District - the state agency charged with restoring the Everglades.

Scott approved a plan that forced the district to slash its budget and draw down its reserves.

ULLMAN: As a result, there were massive layoffs, and especially hard hit, were Everglades science.

ALLEN: More than 250 employees, including many top scientists, were let go. Also gone is much of the money set aside for land acquisition. Land that includes more than 100,000 acres, now owned by U.S. Sugar, available to the state under a deal brokered by former Governor, Charlie Crist.

WOODY LARSON: All right. Everybody hang on.

ALLEN: On his cattle ranch north of Lake Okeechobee, Woody Larson has a load of visitors on board a swamp buggy. It's a high-rise all terrain vehicle useful in running cattle across marshy areas on his ranch. Larson has just signed an agreement with the state of Florida that will pay him tens of thousands of dollars each year to turn some of his ranch into wetlands. Instead of using canals to drain nutrient-rich water that eventually ends up in the Everglades, he's keeping it here.

The head of the South Florida Water Management District, Melissa Meeker, says projects like this are a cost-effective way to improve water quality in the Everglades.

MELISSA MEEKER: When you hear the governor and the administration talk about public-private partnerships, this is exactly the type of thing that we're talking about. We're looking for innovative ways that we can work to reduce the upfront capital investment of the state and taxpayer dollars.

ALLEN: Meeker says programs like this aren't a substitute for land acquisition. To restore the Everglades, she says Florida will have to buy and preserve more land. And, when she talked about it with Governor Scott recently, she says he agreed.

And we started to talk about ideas and he said, stop. If we agree on a plan, we'll get it funded. So, I mean, he's committed to getting it funded, and I don't feel that's going to be a huge hurdle for us.

Former Florida governor and Senator, Bob Graham, says the Everglades can only be fixed by the state and federal government working in partnership. And Graham worries that marriage right now is on the rocks.

SENATOR BOB GRAHAM: One of the leadership responsibilities of the governor will be to restore that level of confidence that the federal government has a reliable partner that is capable of delivering on its half of the partnership for Everglades salvation.

ALLEN: Graham and other Everglades advocates say they're encouraged by what Governor Scott and others in his administration are saying. But now, they're impatient for action.

Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.