The Florida Everglades as seen from the Tamiami Trail. Credit: Marc Ryckaert via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, congratulations! As a fellow Florida native — albeit one from the Panhandle, not from the Keys — I am always happy to see a Floridian get the opportunity to influence the course of history.
Of course, such an opportunity comes with certain risks. We saw this with Katherine Harris’ blundering in overseeing the 2000 election recount, and with the crew from Miami who became the bungling Watergate burglars. That’s naming just a couple of times when Florida’s contribution to the nation’s destiny was to play the fool.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that you can avoid those missteps and maybe even achieve something great.
Fueling my optimism is that, in choosing you, Biden picked someone with a stellar resume, at least as far as Florida’s environment is concerned.
You’ve got degrees in both international affairs and civil engineering from Florida State (no booing from the Gators in the audience, please). You’ve been appointed to state boards by both Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. You spent three terms as co-chair of the often-fractious Everglades Coalition of environmental groups. You served on the South Florida Water Management District governing board, the state agency directly involved in Everglades restoration. And, until recently, you were chief operating officer for the environmental group known as the Everglades Foundation.
Plus, this is your second stint with the Department of the Interior. Four years ago, during the Obama administration, you served as director of the Office of Everglades Restoration Initiatives and executive director of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.
Thus, you should know your way around the D.C. swamps as well as you know your way around Florida’s most famous marsh — although the one in D.C. probably doesn’t smell as good.
I should add that, as someone who follows you on Twitter, I am aware of what a capable person you are, one with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
For instance, you tweeted in October 2020: “Two weeks ago I dismantled and reassembled a carburetor. Today I cut my husband’s hair. I was much more confident about the carburetor. #WhatCouldGoPossiblyGoWrong”
I checked with your husband, Nova Southeastern law professor Richard Grosso, and he told me the haircut went “pretty darn well; just another one of my wife’s many skills.” Presumably, the carburetor worked okay, too.
Your many friends in Florida definitely are rooting for you to succeed.
“She is smart, knowledgeable, honest, and brave, and in addition she is funny, beautiful, and a great guitar player,” longtime environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla (and former Attorney General Janet Reno’s sister) told me. That last attribute came in handy at the Everglades Coalition meetings, she said.
However, times being what they are, I should probably add “condolences” to this note of congratulations because you’re going to have to clean up some pretty big messes left behind by the previous administrations.
So let’s talk about some of those.
Fixing up a list for Ms. Fix-It
Although I have interviewed you any number of times since 1999, when you were working for the World Wildlife Fund, I don’t know if you’re a list person.
I mean one of those folks who starts the day with a to-do list and then throughout the day you check everything off, one by one. I am one of those cursed list-makers and checkers — at least, I am when I remember to take the to-do list out of my shirt pocket before starting the laundry.
I’m sorry you didn’t have time to talk to me this week about your goals for your new job. I presume you were too busy clearing the office of anything left behind by your Trumpian predecessor, a former lobbyist for a big utility company.
But fret not, I bear no grudge. Instead, allow me to furnish you with a suggested to-do list of some things you could fix that would get you off to a big start.
Designate critical habitat for panthers: Florida panthers were put on the very first endangered list in 1967, before the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973. That means the panther was added to the list before the law required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to map out its critical habitat — the land that panthers need so they can continue to exist.
The wildlife agency you now oversee has found it easy to rubber-stamp every development proposed in panther habitat and blame the lack of critical habitat for its inability to take a stand. The last time it objected to a project in panther habitat was in 1993.
So why not set up critical habitat now? The agency’s leaders refused to do it, even when members of Congress asked. They claimed that declaring a certain acreage to be prime panther habitat would cause a backlash that would hurt public support for saving panthers. That’s like firefighters refusing to respond to a call about a burning schoolhouse because some people might object to them wasting water. Don’t you think Florida’s official state animal deserves better treatment than that?
Reverse the decision that took manatees off the endangered list: Four years ago, shortly after the Man of Mar-A-Lago moved into the Oval Office — and over the objections of scientists and a majority of the public — the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that manatees were doing so well they could be taken off the list of endangered species. Instead, the agency classified them as merely threatened.
As you may have heard, in the first four months of this year, more manatees have died (about 650) than died in all of last year — mostly from malnutrition. Sure does sound like the decision to stop calling them “endangered” was a tad premature, doesn’t it? It’s time to admit that and to say that the scientifically solid move is to reclassify them as endangered, especially since scientists worry next winter the die-off could be even worse.
Halt oil drilling in the Big Cypress National Preserve: In 2010, you were given an award named for Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The fabulous Ms. D, as you know, got her start as an environmental advocate when she helped block the construction of the world’s largest jetport in what is now the Big Cypress National Preserve. That led to the federal government buying the land and putting it in the hands of the National Park Service to keep it in its natural state.
But it’s hard to call it a “preserve” when the family that Collier County is named for retains the mineral rights beneath Big Cypress. Like an upscale version of the Beverly Hillbillies, the Colliers are allowing a Texas company to hunt for oil out there, disrupting the swampy wilderness. The Colliers have previously signaled that they might be willing to sell the mineral rights. It’s time to open negotiations with them about that, with an eye toward keeping the preserve preserved.
Get the stalled Everglades restoration back on track: Twenty years after the Everglades restoration project started, with $5 billion spent, exactly one of its 68 projects has been completed — and it’s a lab for raising bugs to devour invasive plants. Meanwhile all the big changes in water flow, so crucial to reviving the River of Grass and stopping damaging releases to the estuaries on both coasts, haven’t happened yet.
We taxpayers need to see some real progress here for all our money being spent — not just more politician photo ops where they brag about how they’re environmentalists no matter what else they do, just because they throw more money at this project. (They can afford to do that because hey, it’s not their money — it’s ours.)
Focus on science, not P.R. stunts, in dealing with pythons: Pythons are a serious problem for the Everglades ecosystem, but a lot of the response has looked like something a reality TV show producer would come up with: Rodeos with prizes! Footballs made with python skin! Politicians waving machetes for the camera! Yeehaw!
Meanwhile a lot of very dedicated hunters are out in the Glades trying to find one or two pythons a night, not for the paltry amount of money they’re paid but because they like the excitement and enjoy the feeling they’re helping the environment.
But that’s never going to be enough to make a dent in the ever-booming snake population, so we should stop pretending that it’s effective. Only some as-yet undiscovered scientific solution will stop this invasion — whether it’s the use of snake pheromones or something else. That’s where we should beef up personnel and funding.
That should be enough to get you started. Then you’ll be ready to fix some things in other states — smog obscuring the Grand Canyon, for instance, and genetic problems with Santa Monica mountain lions.
The man who saved the gators
I know, I know, that’s a lot of complicated stuff to take on — not unlike reassembling a carburetor while cutting your husband’s hair.
But I think anyone with expertise in both diplomacy and engineering should be well-equipped to handle it all. Maybe you can bring your guitar along and play a few verses of “Kumbaya” to win people over.
One reason I have high hopes for you to accomplish all this is rooted in history.
The last Floridian who landed that same high-level job in the Department of the Interior was a Republican, Nathaniel Reed of Hobe Sound. I know you remember Nat, his patrician figure long a fixture of Everglades Coalition meetings right up until he died in 2018.
While working as assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks from 1971 to 1977, he preserved more than 80 million acres of Alaska, publicized the dangers of DDT, and imposed a ban on the use of a coyote-killing poison. Most importantly, he co-wrote the Endangered Species Act and got it passed by Congress and signed by his boss, Richard Nixon.
That turned out to be one of a few things Nixon — otherwise busy bombing Cambodia and covering up a third-rate burglary — got right.
After all, alligators used to be on the endangered species list and now they definitely are not. In fact, we have so many of them that Florida had to set up a Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program — SNAP! for short — to deal with complaints about them showing up on people’s porches and poking their snouts into garages and strolling through the Publix parking lot to check on whether there’s a BOGO on chicken tender subs.
In short, Nat Reed was a heck of a Florida Man, the one who saved the gators (please, no booing from the Seminoles in the audience). But I never saw him rebuild a carburetor, much less cut someone’s hair. So here’s hoping someone who can do both successfully can achieve even greater things than he did.
Or at least avoid being the next Katherine “Hanging Chad” Harris.
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