Craig Pittman: Florida panthers imperiled by presidential pen

By: - September 10, 2020 7:00 am

Florida panther. Wikimedia Commons; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nearly 40 years ago, Florida leaders asked the state’s schoolchildren to vote on naming Florida’s official state animal.

Some classes treated it like an actual election, with different kids selected to speak for the various candidates — one kid spoke for the manatees, another for the alligator, a third for the Florida Key deer, and so on.

In the end, the majority of kids voted for the sleek and elusive Florida panther.

A state legislator balked at this choice and tried to pass a bill declaring the alligator to be the state animal instead. Outraged kids bombarded Tallahassee with phone calls and letters protesting this subversion of democracy. Bowing to their children’s crusade, the Legislature in 1982 officially declared that Florida’s state animal is the panther.

The big cat was an unusual choice.

Few if any of the kids had ever seen one. The panther had been classified as endangered since the first endangered list was drawn up in 1967, and their population was in a steep decline. By 1995 there were no more than 30 left, and some scientists thought the number might be in single digits.

Because it was our state animal, though, Florida put a lot of time, money, and effort into bringing the panther back. Now there are about 200 of them, an estimate that biologists came up with after reviewing panther sightings, panther tracks, and panther poop, which they prefer to call “scat.” Yet now our state animal faces a dire new threat — from the pen of the president.

As you might have heard, we’ve had some economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. People staying home to avoid infection turns out to be bad for tourism. Bars being closed to flatten the curve turns out to be bad for the service economy. Lots and lots of people are out of work, some on furlough, others laid off.

President Donald Trump speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention. Credit: Screenshot from YouTube.

To “fix” this problem, in May President Trump signed one of his many, many executive orders, this one ordering a temporary rollback of some 600 federal regulations that might somehow thwart the nation’s economy from getting back to normal.

“Agencies should address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery,” the order says.

Who benefits?

So, what businesses would benefit from this rollback? The federal departments drew up a list. The Department of the Interior’s list included projects that, thanks to the executive order, would get an “expedited” review of their environmental impact. Four were in Florida. Three involved projects from federal agencies.

The fourth one, though, would benefit a coalition of wealthy landowners and developers in Collier County who want to build a new town smack in the middle of what’s left of panther habitat.

“It stands out as peculiar,” said Jacki Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of five environmental groups raising questions about how this particular project got on the president’s list for a super-speedy review.

The new town, consisting of thousands of new homes and businesses, is just part of what the owners have planned for their 45,000 acres. They also want new sand and gravel mines, a 54-hole golf course, and a whole bunch of new roads to accommodate an expected influx of 300,000 residents.

This project is known to bureaucrats as the “East Collier Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan,” although finding the “conservation” part of all that might require a lengthy search with a fine-toothed comb.

The property these folks own is so important for the panthers’ future that in 2006 a group of experts on panthers and habitat included it in what they called “the primary zone.” That means it’s land that should be preserved at all costs or else risk the extinction of Florida’s official state animal.

The most controversial part of the East Collier Multi-Species Conservation Plan involves granting the landowners an “incidental take permit.” Such a federal permit gives the landowners immunity from prosecution for harassing, hurting, or even killing panthers while pursuing legal activities — say, running over them while using all those new roads.

This “new town” has been in the works for more than a decade. Once known as “Big Cypress,” it was later called “Rural Lands West” and more recently it’s been broken into three separate villages, all in the same location that “Big Cypress” was.

I once had lunch with a Stetson-hatted biologist named Roy McBride who’d been using a pack of well-trained hounds to track Florida panthers since the start of Florida’s panther science program in 1981.

When I asked him about the new town that had been proposed, he took a piece of paper and sketched out a map showing what was left of panther habitat, then drew a circle right in the middle and labeled it “Big Cypress.” That development, he told me, was the biggest threat to the panthers’ continued existence.

Believe it or not, you and I helped pay for planning this threat to our state animal. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handed the landowners a $150,000 grant so they could pay a consultant to draw up the conservation plan that would hold power over land use in that area for the next 50 years.

The conservation part calls for setting aside a few thousand acres for panthers and other wildlife — but that land would be surrounded by all the new development. Doesn’t sound like an ideal arrangement for any wildlife trying to find a corridor for traveling around the way panthers usually do, does it? Instead they’d likely become roadkill in short order.

Yet President Trump has signed an order saying that, for the good of the economy, this massive project which is liable to wipe out our state animal should get more of a quick look-see, rather than an in-depth environmental review.

‘A lot of red flags’

The idea of giving this group such a big break based on bending or waiving the rules that everyone else has to abide by “raises a lot of red flags,” said Amber Crooks of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, another environmental group opposed to the landowners’ plans. It could lead to serious questions about whether it’s even legal, she said.

I have a more practical concern. How does rushing through the review of a big, panther-killing development project help steady our reeling economy? The one Florida industry that hasn’t been hurt by the pandemic is construction. The builders and developers have been going like gangbusters, particularly in Collier County, according to a July report by WINK-TV.

The last time Collier had such runaway growth, by the way, it led to felony racketeering and corruption charges against three county commissioners and an ex-county manager, as well as a developer who gave them free golf games and free lunches and, in one case, even paid for a commissioner’s wedding reception.

Jeb Bush, 43rd governor of Florida, January 5, 1999 – January 2, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet slapped a moratorium on new development until they could get things straightened out. The head of the local GOP complained, “”We have a crisis in government, the roads are jammed beyond redemption, there are problems with services that aren’t being rendered, and it all goes back to the special favors that were given to special people.”

I tried several times reaching someone at the Interior Department who could explain how this Collier project merited special treatment and finally got this non-response from Deputy Press Secretary Conner Swanson:

“For far too long, critically important infrastructure, energy and other economic development projects have been needlessly paralyzed by federal red tape. The Trump administration has taken significant steps to improve the federal government’s decision-making process, while also ensuring that the environmental consequences of proposed projects are thoughtfully analyzed.”

I also tried to get a comment from the landowners seeking the federal favors, but I guess they couldn’t hear me calling them over the sound of the revving bulldozers.

I mention all this because Trump visited Florida on Tuesday to give a speech in Jupiter touting his great record on protecting the environment. And with a straight face, too!

He talked about spending money on fixing the Everglades (something that started under Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush). He also promised to sign another executive order banning offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast — two proposed drilling locations that were being pushed by a president named Trump, so it’s hard to see how he deserves much credit for that one.

Somehow the subject of Trump giving a big break to a massive development that would wipe out the panther never came up. Neither did he mention how he’s allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ignored the growing problem of climate change, and pushed to make cars, factories, and power plants pollute more.

“My administration’s proving every day that we can improve our environment while creating millions of high-paying jobs,” Trump said, then asserted, “Trump is the great environmentalist.”

The ’80s kids who loved panthers would probably call that last statement “bogus,” but I think panther experts would refer to it as “a load of scat.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.