Commentary

Florida Wildlife Corridor subverted by a gold-medal Tallahassee Switcheroo

July 29, 2021 7:00 am

An example of Florida wetlands. Credit: Julie Hauserman

I watched some of the opening Olympic ceremonies last week for one simple reason: I had read that Florida has more athletes in Tokyo right now than any state besides California. And they’re not just there to get away from the smell of the red tide fish kills, either.

Floridians are competing in every sport from weightlifting to water polo. To my surprise, though, not one of them is involved in such traditional Florida sports as the drive-thru gator throw, the downhill machete chop, or the naked-as-a-jaybird fleeing and eluding.

Longtime Floridians spend years learning to master such challenging sports as worm-grunting, interstate mullet tossing, and the 50-yard dash across hot beach sand. Why those are not Olympic sports is a mystery I cannot comprehend.

If there’s any sport at which Floridians would consistently win gold, though, it’s got to be the Tallahassee Switcheroo.

You’ve never heard of it? Oh, sure you have. It’s a sport that’s been played for decades in the halls of the 22-story Tower of Power in our state capital. It’s sort of like a pole vault where you wind up facing the opposite way you were supposed to go. Pulling it off requires steady nerves, a smooth delivery, and a bit of stealth.

The Tampa Bay Times unearthed a prime example of the Tallahassee Switcheroo this week by taking a closer look at the widely acclaimed Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.

This 1944 photo by Robert L. Stone shows Florida ranch land that is managed in much the same way today. Credit: Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The measure, you may remember, calls for buying up lots of farm and ranch land, or purchasing the right to develop that land, thus keeping it undeveloped and open for the use of wildlife. The goal is to create statewide pathways for such wide-ranging critters as bears and Florida panthers, which also benefits plants and animals that stick to just that area. The land-use purchases can help struggling farmers and ranchers avoid having to sell their property to developers.

The act won bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, something that is about as common as a Florida trailer park coming through a Cat 4 hurricane unscathed.

The catch wasn’t in the bill itself. Finding the Tallahassee Switcheroo required the Times to scour the part of the state budget that set aside millions of dollars for obtaining the corridor land.

“In a reversal of the state’s current land-buying policy,” the paper found, “lawmakers this year wrote in the budget that anyone whose development rights are purchased with the $300 million can also use their land for wetland-mitigation banking.”

In other words, landowners can now collect big bucks from the state for promising not to develop their land, then turn around and create a new business on that land that involves collecting big bucks for helping developers with the filling of swamps, bogs, and marshes nearby. This is a Switcheroo with an added Double Dip on the end.

The senator who made this Switcheroo happen told the paper the language was no mistake. He specifically designed it to make it easier for developers to destroy Florida’s fast-disappearing wetlands. He could not have been prouder if there had been an actual medal ceremony for him in Tokyo.

See how the Switcheroo works? You take a measure that’s great for the environment and you slip in a twist that makes it bad for the environment, too. And nobody spotted it until the measure had passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed it into law.

That was a Switcheroo so slick that if it really were an Olympic sport, even the finicky Russian judge would give it the full 10 points.

These banks don’t pay

“But wait,” you say, “a bank for wetlands? That sounds kind of nice. Do they give out calendars to new customers?”

I hate to dash your hopes, but it’s a no on the calendars. Mitigation banks are not that kind of a bank — although there is a lot of money involved. That’s why the immensely profitable yet little-known wetland mitigation banking industry keeps growing. Fifteen years ago, there were 40 or so mitigation banks in Florida. Now there are about 100.

The mitigation banking industry, which began in Louisiana in the 1980s, always reminds me of a certain reality TV star because it’s attached to a big “but.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

The would-be banker buys a wetland that has been drained, usually by farmers trying to grow crops or give their cattle a grassy pasture. The banker draws up a plan for turning it back into a swamp, usually by blocking ditches or filling in canals, then replanting wetland vegetation. Regulators review the plan and decide how to translate the restoration into wetland “credits,” which the banker can sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

The permits require the banker to sign over all development rights, set up goals for the restoration work, and create a fund to maintain the site in perpetuity. Then, when developers pop up with plans that require filling in a wetland — something that happens about as often in this state as a mosquito bite — they can make up for the loss by writing a check for a certain number of credits from the wetland bank.

Now here’s that big ol’ “but.”

Mitigation banking sounds good on paper, BUT — in practice, most Florida’s banks have turned out to be the cause of a large loss of wetlands, not their savior.

I found this out firsthand in the mid-2000s, when another reporter and I spent more than a year digging through all the mitigation bank permits and credit ledgers and other paperwork to see just how this industry worked. We discovered it frequently did not.

A few banks do function the way they should. One that we toured in Kissimmee takes all the stormwater draining off Disney’s parking lots, filters out the pollutants, and puts the clean water back into a creek.

The thing is, though, federal wetlands rules say the point of wetland mitigation banks is “to provide for the replacement of the chemical, physical, and biological functions of wetlands.”  Unlike that bank in Kissimmee, we found that a lot of Florida’s banks had gotten one-third or more of their wetland credits for saving dry land instead. They had restored little in the way of wetlands, or in some cases none at all.

Florida black bear. Wikimedia Commons photo

That means when those banks sell a developer, say, 100 credits to build something that destroys 100 acres of wetlands, those 100 credits don’t replace the lost wetlands or their functions of absorbing floods, recharging the aquifer, and providing wildlife habitat. It’s a net loss.

One of the worst Florida banks, which we visited, was Lake Louisa, a 1,000 acre site in Lake County that mostly consisted of sandy hills covered with orange groves. Lake Louisa got 90 percent of its credits for preserving all that dry land — not for restoring any wetlands.

When we interviewed the state regulator who had approved the permit, he said that without those credits for the dry, sandy hills, Lake Louisa wouldn’t have been much of a mitigation bank, which we thought kind of missed the point. (By the time we interviewed him, by the way, he’d quit his state job to become a mitigation bank consultant.)

The company that created Lake Louisa, Ecobank, was a rather amazing little entity, too. It was founded by a pair of developers who had once gone to jail in Polk County on charges of illegally filling wetlands. To boost their mitigation banking business, they paid local officials, including the Seminole County commission chairman, to hawk Ecobank’s wetland credits to Central Florida developers and other government agencies. When they went bankrupt, they didn’t tell anyone, and federal regulators didn’t figure it out for a year.

Lake Louisa was hardly an isolated failure. In 2007, a study done for the state Department of Environmental Protection reported that fewer than half of the mitigation banks reviewed had achieved the goals required by their permits. Most that did hit their goals only achieved success on paper, not in the field.

The DEP study’s downbeat conclusion: “Return of full wetland function may be an impossible goal, given current and future human development activities across the Florida landscape.”

This, then, is the industry that the Legislature’s Tallahassee Switcheroo will set loose on the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Oh, and there may be one other problem with this Switcheroo.

It may not be legal.

Toss it like a gator through a drive-thru    

   

When Connie Bersok heard about what the Legislature was doing to boost mitigation banking at the expense of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, her first thought was, “That doesn’t seem right.”

Bersok, who retired in 2017 as the DEP’s top wetlands expert, told me this week that the state law governing mitigation banks says that “you couldn’t use public land already purchased for conservation for a mitigation bank.”

The way the Legislature used a line item in the budget rather than attempting to repeal the law, she said, sounded like someone trying to find a clever way to get around the Florida Statutes.

FL Sen. Ben Albritton. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

I put in a call to state Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the state’s environmental budget. The Times identified Albritton, a former chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, as the man who served up this particular Switcheroo. I wanted to ask him about the legality of his budget language and also why he’s such a big fan of mitigation banking, considering its spotty record.

Unfortunately, the senator did not call me back. Perhaps he was too busy stretching before performing his next big Switcheroo. It’s easy to pull a muscle if you’re not careful.

Albritton did tell the Times that turning land the taxpayers had paid to protect into a profit-making mitigation bank “is a very romantic proposition to me,” which makes me wonder what sort of Valentine’s Day gifts he hands out.

Albritton’s name rang a bell, so I looked him up. Sure enough, he was one of the legislators who advocated for the overworked, underfunded staff of the Florida DEP to take over all wetlands permitting from the feds, a goal that developers have sought for decades and finally achieved in the waning days of the Trump Administration. A state takeover means developers don’t have to jump through as many hoops to get permission to pave over marshes and swamps, a result the senator called “good government.”

The one piece of good news here is that budgets are ephemeral. The one passed this year exists only until the next fiscal year starts on July 1, 2022. Here’s hoping nobody can scramble fast enough to take advantage of the Albritton loophole before it expires.

Meanwhile, everyone who loves the Florida Wildlife Corridor should be on the lookout next year for another Tallahassee Switcheroo designed to undercut their good goal. If they spot it early on, maybe they can grab it and hurl it away with all the grace and power of a Florida Olympian tossing a gator through a drive-thru window. The Tokyo games will be over by then, but in Tallahassee the games go on and on and on.

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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 five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently 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.

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