Florida governor, Legislature not good friends to environment

The powers that be in Florida's Legislature and Governor's Mansion continue to display an aversion to land conservation and environmental protection, issues near and dear to the vast majority of Floridians. Yet those powers both boast about their environmental accomplishments. The evidence says otherwise.

The latest Tallahassee salvo comes from Gov. Rick Scott's administration. The Florida Department of Environment Protection proposes opening up more state parks to cattle grazing and timber harvesting. Myakka State Park appears poised to be first in DEP's drive to put more cattle on park land.

In an email response to an inquiry from Herald reporter James A. Jones Jr., the DEP press office responded with this: "The department continually looks for opportunities to expand visitor services and recreation as well as make our parks and lands more self-sustaining."

How is grazing and logging a visitor service? And how does environmental degradation make parks and lands more self-sustaining? Instead, costly restoration work would be required.

The fees the state would charge could not possibly amount to much, certainly nowhere near the $80 million annual costs of operating the parks, a minuscule total in next year's $79 billion budget.

The DEP's drive to damage the tranquil park atmosphere -- where visitors enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, bird-watching and more -- is now under literal fire from another direction. According to DEP documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times last week, the agency is looking at opening state parks to hunting -- possibly within a month or two if this ludicrous idea is approved. So nature preserves could now become killing grounds?

Isn't wildlife protection and safe havens one of the core missions of our state parks?

DEP Secretary Jon Steverson gives the false rationalization that the park system should pay for itself when they already generate billions of dollars in revenue for the state. An agency study last year put the economic impact at $2.1 billion from 27 million visitors.

One wonders if these new money-making schemes will backfire with the loss of visitors who want nothing to do with gunfire and bullets.

The commercialization and industrialization of state parks fits neatly into the Tallahassee narrative of privatizing public properties and services.

Florida's conservation lands have been under attack for years. Scott's administration decimated funding for the state's vital water management districts, pivotal players in environmental protection and restoration.

Several years ago, DEP listed 5,300 acres of so-called "surplus lands" for sale, including 19.4 acres at Lake Manatee State Park and 13.1 acres of Terra Ceia Preserve. The public uproar persuaded DEP to remove both from the list.

On environmental matters, a few years ago Scott and the Legislature decimated regulations over land development -- giving the green light to more bulldozers carving up the landscape.

Legislature's poor record

Tallahassee's environmentally unfriendly ways can also be found in the state budget, approved by the Legislature Friday evening. By allocating a pittance to land acquisitions, lawmakers shredded the intent of the three-quarters of the electorate who approved the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, best known as Amendment 1.

The citizen initiative came about after years of frustration with Tallahassee slashing land acquisition spending. The amendment dedicated a third of documentary stamp tax revenues to land purchases, ecosystem restoration and environmental protection. That money will amount to around $740 million this coming fiscal year.

Lawmakers budgeted $17.4 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program. Florida Forever once regularly received $300 million annually, a figure Amendment 1 supporters hoped would return. Not with this Legislature.

Even with a historic amount of money available under the amendment, lawmakers cut environmental spending by around $60 million from last year.

In the classic legislative bait-and-switch scheme, the budget allocates amendment dollars to existing expenses, including administrative costs currently funded with general revenue and water projects that already enjoy funding sources.

The 2015-16 budget cuts general revenue spending on environmental matters by more than $92 million. Lawmakers thus replaced those dollars with Amendment 1 money. Voters be damned.

What a shameful fraud, also perpetrated on voters who approved the state lottery system in order to boost funding for education. That did not happen then. And it's not happening now.

Voters should remember this travesty of the people's will in the next election.

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