The Dubious Environmental Achievement Awards
I was born in Florida. I grew up here. It really is the best place in the world to live—and not just because it has sugar-sand beaches and glorious sunsets. No, it’s also because something amazing is always happening. Every day, the headlines contain at least one story that merits a major-league spit-take. I tell people that if you live in Florida, you’ll never suffer from an irony deficiency.
Just look at our history. We were discovered by Ponce De Leon, who was looking for a cool drink of water from a fountain. Ever since then we’ve been doing our best to drain the place dry, paving over the swamps, sucking up the aquifer, turning the springs into stagnant mudholes.
Embracing the irony of Florida is the only way to make sense of what happens here, especially when it comes to the environment. Think of all the natural beauty that draws people to our state. Yet we seem determined to destroy that beauty—usually in the name of accommodating all the people who’ve been drawn here.
This past year in particular has seemed almost like a green-themed version of Esquire magazine’s old "Dubious Achievement Awards," with a broad cast of characters—elected officials contradicting themselves, smugglers with snakes in their pants, bears in hot tubs, and a cult that drinks snail juice. Read on and see why Florida mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen says he never makes anything up in his books. He just reads the daily papers.
IT’S PERFECT! LET’S CHANGE IT
Florida’s state park system is a jewel. It wins national awards. It attracts millions of visitors every year. So of course Rep. Patrick Rooney and Sen. John Thrasher filed a bill that would have let Jack Nicklaus build golf courses—with attached hotels—in some of the parks. A public outcry forced them to call a mulligan.
NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED
State wildlife officers say a trio of Volusia County hunters made a few mistakes in their search for a trophy: 1) They went out at midnight. 2) They decided to hunt at Blue Spring State Park, where no hunting is allowed. 3) They decided to get themselves an alligator, even though gators were out of season. 4) They fired at the only alligator they saw, but missed. 5) Blundering around in the dark, two of the hunters bumped into each other and one of them shot the other one in the foot.
GIVE OR TAKE A FEW…OR NONE
From his first day in office, Gov. Rick Scott vowed to gut the state Department of Community Affairs. He contended the agency in charge of managing Florida’s growth was a red-tape-crazy job-killer, citing as an example a development in Collier County that he said needed "75 or 78 permits." Turns out he was talking about Ave Maria, an entire new town built on 5,000 acres nine miles from the edge of Naples, land that had been habitat for the endangered Florida panther and other imperiled species. Building Ave Maria actually entailed getting 81 permits—most of them required by county officials, because each of the subdivisions within the town needed separate permits. Not one was issued by the DCA.
HE SHOULD HAVE JUST POKED THEM
State wildlife officers charged a Tampa man with illegally shooting an alligator and a deer using an AK-47 he’d recently bought at a gun show. What tipped them off? He posted pictures of his kills on Facebook.
IT WAS A SLOOOOOOW INVASION
A Miami subdivision was overrun by giant African snails that can grow to be 10 inches long and are known to eat 500 different kinds of plants. Officials found 1,000 of them in a single square-mile area. The likely source of the invasion, according to the Miami Herald: A year before, police had arrested a man who practiced the traditional African religion Ifa Orisha, and persuaded his followers to drink the snails’ juices as part of a healing ritual (even though it made them violently ill).
THE HEAT WAS UNBEARABLE
It was a big year for bear encounters—one bear running through the woods in the Panhandle knocked over a bicyclist, while another invaded a house to swipe a birthday cake. But the smartest bear was the one that burst through a Central Florida woman’s screen door to soak in her spa. "I think he was hot and thirsty," the woman told the Orlando Sentinel. "It looked like he knew what he was doing."
ALSO, WE’RE CHANGING THE NAME TO ‘NEVERGLADES’
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration project for 11 years. Obama administration officials have repeatedly announced their determination to push the Everglades project along as fast as possible. But this fall the Corps announced it’s closing its Everglades restoration office. Not to worry, though: Army officials swore that would not hamper Everglades restoration one bit.
State parks officials themselves proposed putting overnight camping areas, which would accommodate not only tents but also recreational vehicles, into parks that did not have them, including the state’s most popular park, Honeymoon Island. Gov. Scott defended the proposal, until a public hearing on Honeymoon Island drew nearly 1,000 people, every single one of them opposed.
BLAME IT ON THE BOGEY
During the 2011 legislative session, the pro-business group Associated Industries led the charge to gut the DCA and rewrite the growth management act, arguing both were standing in the way of economic recovery. But after they’d won, Associated Industries then-president Barney Bishop said that actually DCA wasn’t all that bad. "Whenever you’re fighting an issue," Bishop explained, "you have to have a bogeyman."
WATER YOU’RE GOING TO DRINK NOW?
Gov. Scott and the Legislature ordered huge cuts to the state’s five water management districts. The South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of Everglades restoration, laid off 135 employees, including such top Everglades scientists as Christopher McVoy. McVoy said the cuts and subsequent brain drain from the layoffs resulted in his tax bill dropping by $4.70, which he said worked out to "three cups of coffee in exchange for trashing Everglades restoration." Meanwhile, South Florida water officials predicted the region would suffer from a continuing drought.
IT’S AWFUL…OR SO I’VE HEARD
In the Legislature, the man who pushed the growth management rewrite through was Bradenton’s own Sen. Mike Bennett. Bennett, a developer, kept telling his colleagues how the DCA had blocked growth and hurt the economy. After the session was over, a reporter asked Sen. Bennett how often the DCA had blocked any of his developments. The answer: never.
JUDGE ME BY MY SIZE, DO YOU?
A homeowner in the Panhandle town of Carrabelle told wildlife officials that her 14-year-old, five-pound Chihuahua, named "Little Bit," flushed a bear from cover and chased it away from her pet goat.
THE LOCALS ARE IN CHARGE…UNTIL WE SAY SO
Florida Chamber of Commerce officials are already planning further growth management changes for next year, according to the Orlando Sentinel. One idea they’re exploring: forcing cities and counties to waive their own growth-management requirements for new developments. If they refuse, the new Department of Economic Opportunity could steer job projects to other communities more willing to play ball. "Capital is going to go to places that roll out the red carpet," said chamber executive vice president David Hart.
THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR SEWERS
The good news: Recycling is more popular than ever in Florida. The bad news: Thieves looking to make big bucks off selling scrap metal have swiped the copper wiring out of church air conditioners and street lights. They’ve even walked off with heavy sewer grates and manhole covers. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Coconut Creek lost 65 steel drain covers —up from 10 last year—while Coral Springs and Oakland Park each lost 10 this year, Tamarac lost seven and Fort Lauderdale six.
SNAKES NOT ON A PLANE
A man trying to board a flight from Miami to Brazil was stopped by the Transportation Security Agency when he went through the body scanner. He didn’t have a bomb, though. He turned out to have seven snakes in his pants. Granted, they were in nylon bags and not loose…but he also had three tortoises in there.
GOTTA GET A GATOR
Alligators made news repeatedly this year, usually by attacking people or pets (one even chomped on the bumper of an Alachua County deputy’s patrol car). But in one case the people got the gators—and then were gotten themselves. Wildlife officers busted two Central Florida men in an airboat when they pulled up at a boat ramp with a bag full of 260 baby gators. The men were taken into custody. The gators were returned to the swamp.
THAT WAS THEN
Sen. Bennett repeatedly asserted that Florida’s environmental permitting process was hurting the economy, citing as an example the exodus of boat manufacturers in 2008. "We lost the boating industry out of Sarasota-Manatee counties simply because they couldn’t get building permits" to expand their plants, he told a TV reporter. Actually, when boat makers Donzi, Wellcraft and Chris Craft moved to North Carolina, their departure had nothing to do with permits. Just ask Bennett—circa 2008. "Those have to do with taxes and insurance," Bennett told The Bradenton Herald then. "Some of these states are literally luring our companies away because [they have] a tax structure that makes sense, an insurance industry that makes sense."
BARKING UP THE WRONG FROG
A bill to name the barking treefrog as Florida’s official state amphibian passed the state Senate, but members of the House didn’t hop on the idea.
YOU KNOW BEST…OR MAYBE YOU DON’T
Legislators pushing the rewrite of the growth management laws said over and over that local governments didn’t need state bureaucrats looking over their shoulders. But when it came to regulating pollution, many of them sang a different tune. The Legislature passed a law that said local governments worried about toxic runoff could no longer impose a summertime ban on selling fertilizer, or do anything else that would differ from decisions made and standards set in Tallahassee.
I DON’T THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS
After making those water district cuts, Gov. Scott then went to Washington, D.C., to ask top federal officials to give the state an extra six years beyond the original deadline to clean up the pollution flowing into the Everglades, delaying the completion until 2022.Then he announced that this showed Florida remains "steadfast" in its commitment to Everglades restoration.
SHE FLUNKED THE DRILL DRILL
Presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, during a campaign appearance in Sarasota, said America needed to drill its own oil and gas wells, rather than relying on foreign oil. Then she added: "Whether that is in the Everglades, or whether that is in the eastern Gulf region or whether that’s in North Dakota, we need to go where the energy is." Among those outraged by those remarks: her fellow Tea Party hero Rep. Allen West, who condemned her comment as "an absolute faux pas." Bachmann, who was ranked No. 3 in the polls at the time, slid downhill rapidly, soon facing the fate of the last presidential candidate to advocate drilling in the Everglades, actor Fred Thompson.
WAAAAAAHHHHH! I MEAN BAAAAAAA!
Miami police fielded a call from someone who reported hearing a baby crying in a parked car. When they investigated, they found no infants or toddlers inside the car. They did find goats, roosters, pigeons, guinea pigs and ducks, and charged two men who showed up 45 minutes later with 22 counts of animal cruelty.
IT WASN’T AN ACT OF GOD
A church in Panama City filed for bankruptcy, citing among other problems the damage done by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Congregants who worked in the tourism industry couldn’t make donations any more, the pastor told the Northwest Florida Daily News, and real estate agents who were members went from weekly sales to being lucky if they sold one or two homes a month.
WE HATE THOSE BULLIES…BECAUSE THEY WON’T FIGHT
For months state officials and business leaders have been blasting Obama’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for trying to impose new pollution rules on Florida’s waterways. They say a cleanup would cost too much. As Associated Industries’ Barney Bishop told NPR: "We don’t need no stinking feds telling us what to do here in Florida." But the fact is, EPA didn’t want to impose those new rules. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups had to sue, charging EPA was breaking the law by allowing Florida to pollute its waterways. EPA officials agreed to a settlement that required the new water quality standards.
RIGHT HAND, MEET LEFT HAND
On behalf of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Hasner, Attorney General Pam Bondi sued the EPA to block enforcement of those new water pollution standards, which were aimed at stopping nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from sewers, septic tanks, paper mills and stormwater runoff with excess fertilizer. In one legal motion, Bondi accused the EPA of exaggerating the pollution problem—but filed it the same day the state DEP put out its own new water pollution regulations.
When an opening came up for someone to sit on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Gov. Scott picked a paving contractor named Charles W. "Chuck" Roberts III, whose company has repeatedly run afoul of the state’s environmental regulations. Roberts said when he was interviewed by Scott for the job, the subject of those violations never came up—and why should it? "I don’t see what that has to do with fish and wildlife," Roberts said.
SLEEP EASY, TAMPA BAY
Workers trying to stop pollution from the Piney Point phosphate plant leaking into the Bishop Harbor area of Tampa Bay tried plugging the hole with seven queen-size mattresses.
OH, THE HU-MANA-TEA!
When federal wildlife officials proposed new boating restrictions in Citrus County that were designed to protect manatees, they drew opposition from the usual quarters—boaters, tour operators, business interests, city and county officials—and one unusual group: the local chapter of the Tea Party. "We cannot elevate nature above people," explained Edna Mattos, 63, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots. "That’s against the Bible and the Bill of Rights." Mattos said the manatee plan was all part of a United Nations program "designed to make humans into livestock." And she said that while she enjoys showing off manatees to her grandchildren, she had little use for the Save the Manatee Club, explaining, "If some of these environmental movements had been around in the days of the dinosaurs, we’d be living in Jurassic Park now."
SSSSSSSSSAVE MY BUSINESSSSSSS!
One of the Everglades’ biggest woes is that it’s been invaded by a host of exotic species, including thousands of pythons. With no natural enemies, they are proliferating rapidly and threaten native species. One 15 ½-footer swallowed a deer. The U.S. Interior Department proposed to make it illegal to import Burmese pythons and eight other species, as well as illegal to transport them across state lines. Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee denounced the proposed rule as part of the Obama administration’s "regulatory tsunami" and warned that it could "devastate a small but thriving sector of the economy."
Want to know the best thing about all the environmental craziness in 2011? This year probably won’t hold a candle to what’s going to happen in 2012. Stay tuned.
Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. He is the co-author of Paving Paradise and the author of Manatee Insanity. His next book, The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid, grew out of an award-winning piece, "The Case of the Purloined Orchid," he did for Sarasota in March 2005 about an orchid theft involving Selby Gardens.