FL Legislature, longtime enemy of conservation funding, OKs creating wildlife corridors

June 10, 2021 7:00 am

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition founder Carlton Ward Jr. paddles Crawford Creek in the Chassahowitzka River Delta. Credit: 
Carlton Ward


Eight years ago, I talked to a nature photographer named Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation Floridian, about a crazy idea he had.

To me, it sounded both heroic and quixotic, but I didn’t tell him that.

Ward’s idea, cooked up with bear biologist Joe Guthrie, was to lead a small group of people on a 1,000-mile, 100-day trek up the spine of the state, taking pictures and shooting video of some of its remaining undeveloped areas.

They would travel from the southern tip of the peninsula northward to the Georgia line. They would walk, pedal mountain bikes, ride horses, and paddle kayaks or paddleboards from the marshes of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp.

Their photos and footage would dazzle everyone with the beauty of our bogs and forests, our low-growing wildflowers and dangling Spanish moss, our flat prairies and our hilly scrub. They would not show any mountains because, of course, we don’t have any of those.

Their goal: Show that the state’s apparently fragmented state parks, federal wildlife refuges, and so forth could be connected into one long corridor to accommodate wide-ranging wildlife such as panthers and bears. Smaller creatures that live along those corridors would benefit from preserving those passageways. So would farmers and ranchers willing to sell the development rights to their acreage in exchange for promising to maintain it in a wildlife-friendly way.

They hoped, with that trek and several subsequent ones, to produce enough publicity for their idea to convince both private landowners and state officials of the importance of saving those connecting properties. They wanted to create what they called the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

“Suuuuuure,” I thought then. “Good luck with that.”

I don’t think that anymore.

As usual, a lot of bad stuff passed the Legislature this year. One bill shifts the cost of keeping up with new growth away from developers and onto the backs of the taxpayers, for instance. Another tells Key West voters they have no right to make decisions about the environmental impact of cruise ships on their city’s own port.

But, to my surprise, the legislators did one good thing: They passed a bill called the “Florida Wildlife Corridor Act,” which does exactly what Ward and Guthrie had in mind. And it was not the least bit controversial. The votes were unanimous in both the House and the Senate.

This is a miracle akin to the Devil showing up in church on Easter Sunday, apologizing to everyone for causing so much trouble, and dropping a $1,000 bill in the offering plate.

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

The Florida Wildlife Corridors Act “is considered a milestone in efforts to preserve migration paths for animals such as the Florida panther, keeping them from becoming isolated and inbred,” WUSF-FM reported.

“Once you understand the necessity of the corridor, it makes good sense,” the bill’s original sponsor, Republican Rep. Keith Truenow, a sod farmer from Tavares, told me this week. When he said that, I nearly fell out of my chair.

Truenow was elected to the House last year, so the ways of Florida’s dysfunctional government are new to him. He said that some of the more senior legislators talked to him prior to his first session about him sponsoring the corridors bill, “and I didn’t need much convincing.”

What makes the passage of this act even more astounding is that the legislators also came up with a chunk of money to pay for buying the land for those corridors.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, by itself, is just a noble gesture. But when backed by actual dollars, it becomes something with real potential, something remarkably different from what’s been happening for the past decade or more.

Thereby hangs a tale.

Florida Forever? More like ‘never’

Florida’s election history is like a box full of dog toys. They’re both full of squeakers.

Everybody remembers the 2000 election. That’s the one when our hanging chads and three-week recount left the nation reeling, even as everyone rolled their eyes at Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ ignorance of the election laws she was supposed to administer.

That’s been far from the only one, though.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition participants camp near the Apalachicola River. Credit: Carlton Ward Jr.

All three times that Rick Scott has run for office — twice for governor and once for U.S. senator — he won by a margin so slender you could use it in an ad for Slimfast.

Then there’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose 2018 victory was as narrow as the ductwork Bruce Willis crawled through in “Die Hard.”

It’s not just Republicans. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, won her race by roughly the same number of votes as those cast by the residents of “Gilligan’s Island.” (OK, I’m exaggerating that one — a little.)

On the other hand, we’ve had a few elections in which the results were as lopsided as that time in 1993 when the Gators beat LSU by a score of 58-3. I am thinking here of the vote in 2014 for Amendment 1, a proposal to set aside some $10 billion in tax money over the next 20 years to purchase environmentally sensitive land and protect wildlife and water resources.

Amendment 1 passed with the support of 75 percent of the voters, in effect creating the largest — and most popular — state-based conservation initiative in United States history.

The vote was a rebuke to the Florida Legislature. Florida used to lead the nation in environmental land purchases with programs named Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. Every year, the state put $300 million into the program, explained Florida Wildlife Federation president Preston Robertson, who pointed out that one of its most enthusiastic backers was former Gov. Jeb Bush.

But then the legislators began siphoning that money off for other purposes unrelated to preserving Florida’s natural bounty. Under Gov. Scott — whose idea of being green involves money, not nature — they completely eliminated funding for the land-buying program.

Scott then dismantled the state Department of Environmental Protection division in charge of assessing and acquiring environmental land, apparently figuring Florida owned enough wildlife habitat and so developers could just pave over the rest.

Backers of Amendment 1 expected it to force legislators to once again inject $300 million a year into Florida Forever. Instead, a year after it passed, lawmakers earmarked a mere $17.4 million for buying forests, swamps, beaches, and riverfront land. In the years since then, they have never come close to the expected level.

Whenever I hear Florida legislators bragging about being in favor of law and order, I always think about how they have defied the law of the land on this issue, despite the clear intent of the voters.

Environmental groups sued to force the Legislature to comply with the voters’ orders. Although judges have so far ruled for the environmental groups, the suit is still far from over, Robertson told me. There may be a trial this summer — emphasis on the “maybe.”

“I have learned that it’s very difficult to sue the Legislature,” he said.

This is why it’s so amazing that the legislators —  Scrooge McDucks when it comes to spending money saving the things that make Florida such a special place — agreed to spend money on the wildlife corridors.

They voted to put $100 million into Florida Forever this year, and then top it with another $300 million to buy land for the wildlife corridors, for a total of $400 million to spend on buying environmental land.

The funny thing is where all that money is coming from — and where it’s going.

That is, if the governor signs the bill into law.

Waiting for DeSantis, wondering about 2022

Jason Lauritsen, who previously oversaw Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, now serves as executive director of the organization that Ward and Guthrie started so long ago, the Florida Wildlife Corridor. When I talked to him this week, he said everyone was “holding their breath for this to become official when the governor signs it.”

Getting to this point has required years of hard work, he said, not just by his organization but by plenty of other environmental groups, not to mention landscape ecology experts who first began talking about a wildlife corridor years before Ward and Guthrie began planning their long hikes. Saving those corridors will require even more hard work — and more than a little luck.

“With all the development pressure, there’s so much at stake,” Lauritsen said. “In many cases, it’s just a race to see who will get there first.”

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the $300 million that the GOP-dominated Legislature wants to spend on saving those wildlife corridor properties would come from the American Rescue Plan.

You remember that law, right? That’s the measure Congress passed at the behest of President Joe Biden to provide relief to the nation’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not one single Republican in Congress — including the ones in our fine Florida delegation, of which former Gov. Scott is a member — voted in favor of this bill.

Scott did more than just vote against the bill. According to Politico, he sneered that it’s just a slush fund and called for Florida officials to give all that federal money back. They did not. In fact, DeSantis said Scott’s position “doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s one irony of the Legislature’s action to save the wildlife corridors, that its Republican leaders are OK with using Democrat-backed cash to save the environment.

The other is that, according to Lauritsen, a big chunk of the proposed wildlife corridor land is already on the Florida Forever purchase list.  How much? He estimated it at 79 percent.

In other words, if the Legislature had been funneling money into the Florida Forever program the way the voters wanted them to, a lot of the Florida Wildlife Corridor land likely would have already been saved from development.

The longer state officials delay in making those purchases, Robertson noted, the higher the land price goes, and the less of it the state can afford to buy. It’s sort of like waiting to buy that emergency generator when the hurricane’s 50 miles offshore, as opposed to buying it before the start of hurricane season.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition participants hike through woods. Credit: Mallory Dimmitt

Well, that’s enough chortling over these abounding ironies — oh wait, I’ve got one more: <chortle!>. There, that does it. The important thing here is that the Legislature made saving the wildlife corridor land a legal priority of the state, and then put up a bunch of money to make it happen. Hip hip, hurray!

Two questions remain: 1) Will DeSantis sign this into law? And 2) If he does, will there be money for buying this land next year, when there’s not likely to be any more American Rescue Plan cash pouring into the state’s coffers?

Nobody knows the answer to No. 1 except the governor. At the moment, he seems more focused on making sure nobody teaches white kids to feel bad about the fact that their ancestors owned slaves. But let’s say he figures out how popular this move would be and puts his John Hancock on the bill.

Then we come to the second question. The answer there varies according to who’s talking.

Rep. Truenow said he expects the state’s growing economy will give a boost to the amount of money available for next year’s purchases. Robertson, understandably, is less certain that this Era of Green Spending might continue unabated.

“It is always an uphill fight to get this money from the Legislature,” he said.

Come to think of it, maybe we do have a tall and treacherous mountain to climb in Florida — and it’s in Tallahassee. But, for once, at least, getting to the top was a lot easier than that original hike by Ward and his friends.

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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.