Florida environmentalists seek legal rights for water and wildlife through constitutional amendments

By: - July 20, 2021 4:54 pm

Florida Panther. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A network of environmentalist underdogs who proved last year they could beat the system at the local level is taking its pro-nature campaign in Florida to voters statewide for 2022.

The network, through a political action committee called FL5.org, is petitioning to have five proposed constitutional amendments placed on the 2022 general ballot.

Four of the initiatives demand stricter protections for Florida’s waters, wetlands, wildlands in the path of new or expanded toll roads, and iconic species such as the endangered Florida Panthers, Florida manatees, right whales, sea turtles, black bears, and bottlenose dolphins.

A fifth initiative would ban “captive wildlife hunting facilities,” also known as game farms, that peddle hunting of animals such as deer, hogs, rams, antelope, and water buffalo enclosed within their boundaries. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission reports there are 443 licensed game farms in Florida.

The campaigns are led by Charles “Chuck” O’Neal, father of Florida’s Rights Of Nature movement, which aims to establish legal rights for natural features such as rivers, springs, and wildlife.

O’Neal and his allies made waves last year, when Orange County voters, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, overwhelmingly approved their “Right to Clean Water Initiative” — an amendment to the county charter granting citizens the right to file lawsuits on behalf of polluted local waterways. The backers said it made Orange County the largest municipality in the nation to adopt a rights-of-nature law and the first one to do so in Florida.

Orange County voters also deposed an incumbent county commissioner, Betsey VenderLey, and replaced her with environmental lawyer Nicole Wilson, who helped write the language of the Clean Water Initiative.

Homebuilders and developers urged lawmakers in the 2020 Florida Legislature to ban the granting of legal rights to natural features, arguing they would be bad for business.

“They tried to preempt rights of nature in Orange County. In 2020, they snuck in a preemption in the Clean Waterways Act,” O’Neal told the Phoenix in an interview.

Associated Industries of Florida, industry lobbyists, endorsed the waterways legislation and its rights-of-nature preemption, saying in 2020 it “addresses water quality and protects Florida businesses from lawsuits by defining that people cannot sue on behalf of inanimate objects, i.e. rivers, lakes, streams etc.”

Environmental groups widely panned the legislation, which passed, saying it protects polluters and is too weak to make Florida waterways fouled with blue-green algae and red tide clean again.

“I got frustrated with the way special interests manipulate environmental regulations in Florida,” O’Neal told Phoenix columnist Craig Pittman last summer.  “We’re basically handcuffed here at the local level when it comes to protecting our water supply.”

O’Neal countered with the five citizen initiatives, for which his allies must secure nearly 1 million voter signatures to make ballot in 2022. They are not soliciting campaign contributions to bankroll marketing campaigns but are counting on Floridians to vote in support of the natural wonders they love about Florida.

“Ours is all-volunteer,” O’Neal said, adding that 35 environmental allies so far are endorsing FL5’s efforts. Those include the Florida Springs Council, Save Our Rivers, Waterkeepers Florida, Campus Climate Corps, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

FL5.org’s proposed amendments to Florida’s Constitution are:

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]