Guess what: FL Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t exactly a ‘Teddy Roosevelt conservationist’

October 8, 2019 7:00 am
The Everglades

The Everglades. Credit: National Park Service

You may be under the impression that Gov. Ron DeSantis is some kind of environmentalist, the Not-Rick Scott who really cares about Florida’s lands and waters.

Bless your heart. You probably believe angels lounge on clouds, cats have nine lives, and Donald Trump’s tan is natural.

DeSantis touts his Red Tide Task Force to combat the toxic algal scourge that kills fish, birds and manatees, the new Office of Environmental Accountability, and his appointment of a “Chief Science Officer”  who will, we are assured, deal with Florida’s epically impaired waters.

Obviously, a one-eyed possum would do a better job with Florida’s endangered ecosystems than the truth-challenged, polluter-coddling, Medicare fraudster Rick Scott, who forbade state agencies to utter the words “climate change,” never mind that South Florida floods every other week. Scott fought efforts to clean up our rivers and lakes, and sold his soul (assuming he had one) to Big Sugar.

But DeSantis is hardly a Republican Greta Thunberg.

While the governor calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” he supports destroying wildlife corridors and wrecking forests and wetlands in some of Florida’s last underpopulated places – Taylor, Levy and Dixie counties – for new toll roads nobody needs or wants.

Nobody except the Chamber of Commerce, the asphalt industry and some mega-bucks, Trump-supporting landowners like Thomas Peterffy, the richest man in the state, agrees.

There’s more: DeSantis signed a bill that will make it nearly impossible for citizens to challenge venal developers in court.

Say you want to stop construction of mall near a lake in your county. You get with the Sierra Club or the Florida Wildlife Federation or just a group of neighbors and you sue. If you lose, you’ll pay the developer’s legal fees, which could be hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars.

As ever in Florida, the rich carry on raping and pillaging the land, while the rest of us suffer the ecological consequences.

Wait! you say: DeSantis’s new budget asks for all this environmental money! Doubling the fines for sewage spills, $50 million for springs clean-up, and $360 million for Everglades projects.

Campaigning in 2018, DeSantis touted his tight friendship with Donald Trump as a reason that he could get big fat federal dollars for his ambitious green-tinged ideas. Between that and dissing Big Sugar (which deserves all the opprobrium heaped on it), DeSantis snagged an endorsement from the Everglades Trust.

Let’s stipulate that DeSantis has to be better for the environment than Rick Scott. That’s a low bar.

Let’s also stipulate that DeSantis is a canny politico. In 2008, fewer than half of Florida voters believed climate change was real; in 2019, the number is nearly double that.

DeSantis is surely aware that most residents of coastal Florida (that’s two-thirds of the population) now feel the effects of sea-level rise, salt water incursion into the aquifer, and warmer weather leading not only to more destructive hurricanes but also a plague of iguanas.

He needs to make the odd gesture in the direction of the climate crisis.

Yet tens of thousands still move to Florida because they want to live by the ocean, and they’re prepared to pay big money for a condo in a high-rise on the sand – as long as the government coughs up the cash for rebuilding and fixing that beach once a storm sucks the sand out to sea and throws it down two miles away.

These people probably really, really, really want to save the planet.

Just, like, later.

DeSantis has cunningly focused on the Everglades – Florida’s most iconic ecosystem. The ‘Glades is a stand-in for all Florida environmental issues, as if all we have to do is help our iconic River of Grass, building the reservoir, restoring the water flow (well, some of it), shoot all those Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards, and make Big Ag cut back some on using Lake Okeechobee as a toilet.

Even small progress on the Everglades will play well in the governor’s re-election campaign.

But what about the wetlands and the forest habitat in North Florida, currently under threat from over-development and road-building? What about the phosphate mines continuing to dirty the Peace River?

What about Ginnie Springs? Megacorp Nestlé paid a $115 one-time fee to be able to suck out 1.15 million gallons a day – then bottle it and sell it back to you. What’s DeSantis going to do about that?

It’s nearly impossible to tackle Florida’s huge environmental problems, which are mostly related to climate change, without help from Washington.

That help won’t come: DeSantis won’t challenge Donald Trump, the Denier-in-Chief.

On the contrary, DeSantis just launched a “Presidential Defense Fund,” to help Trump fight off those nasty old Democrats who keep going around suggesting that it’s a bit unsavory to ask a foreign government’s help in taking down your political opponent and his family.

DeSantis may pay lip-service to our impending environmental catastrophe, but don’t expect this lapdog to bite his master.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that DeSantis won the endorsement of the Everglades Trust.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.