Upping the ante to protect water, land, and wildlife in 2021

January 12, 2021

By Rob Moher

As 2019 ended, I drafted a guest opinion titled “Upping the ante to protect Southwest Florida.” The piece complimented USA TODAY Network’s excellent editorial about our region’s water crisis while outlining five additional steps to protect our water, land, wildlife and future in Southwest Florida. Let’s examine where we stand today on those five issues.

Everglades from above

Wetland destruction: Moving in the wrong direction

One year ago, I argued that Florida should abandon its misguided attempts to take federal authorization of Section 404 wetlands permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. With the state budget facing a multi-billion dollar revenue drop, how would an already under-resourced Florida Department of Environmental Protection assume the work of a better-resourced agency like the Army Corps? Florida’s permitting record demonstrates we need federal agency review of wetland permitting to better preserve and restore wetlands for flood control, water quality and protect against impacts of climate change.

Onshore fracking activities: Making progress

Although the Florida Legislature failed to ban fracking and advanced well stimulation treatments, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and other local and national advocates created pressure to slow onshore oil exploration. This year, advocates celebrated the withdrawal of the Tocala seismic testing permit, which would have impacted more than 100,000 acres. We maintained pressure on state and federal agencies to hold Burnett Oil responsible for damage during its exploration of Big Cypress National Preserve. Market forces have reduced demand for new sources of oil, but it’s worth noting that Florida holds less than 0.1% of known national oil reserves. Clearly, the potential damage to our environment is not justified for such a minimal return.

Investing in natural resources: Making progress

COVID-19 caused an unexpected boom in Florida’s real estate market, creating more pressure to convert natural lands into developments. The approval of $100 million for Florida’s award-winning land conservation program, Florida Forever, represents one success, but that’s nowhere near the $300 million target from prior years. Florida is losing 10 acres of natural lands per hour to development. On a positive note, the donation of the 27,000-acre Deluca ranch to the University Florida for permanent conservation is an example of how a visionary family of ranch owners can preserve Florida’s native ecosystems. Additionally, 77% of Collier County residents voted to renew Conservation Collier, clearly indicating that common sense land conservation programs are popular.

Aerial shot of densely packed homes

Sprawling development: Moving in the wrong direction

Developers continue submitting permit applications for projects in Lee County’s sensitive Density Reduction Groundwater Resource area (DRGR) as well as eastern Collier County’s 195,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA). Instead of smart, compact and sustainable communities, plans are moving forward at warp speed to build costly and sprawling developments on panther habitat that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars by subsidizing the infrastructure of roads, schools and related services. In fact, it abandons the principles and intentions of the RLSA and will lead to the loss of natural and agricultural lands. The Conservancy is legally challenging Collier County’s approval of Rivergrass Village so it does not become the weak standard bearer for growth in sensitive lands.

Toll roads: Moving in the wrong direction

In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) into law, which includes the Southwest-Central Florida Connector. The law bypasses the well-established transportation planning process and was met with sharp resistance from Florida residents, conservation and civic groups, local governments and businesses. The plan already has cost our cash-strapped state millions of dollars, yet legislators and the governor continue to back a toll road project that would jeopardize threatened and endangered species, including the Florida panther. It’s time to reverse course and save Floridians from these “roads to ruin.”

Public input is paramount to building resistance for poorly conceived projects while generating support for positive policy initiatives. Join the Conservancy in advocating for smart solutions to our water, land and wildlife challenges by visiting Conservancy.org. You, too, can help strengthen our quality of life today and into the future.