Nathaniel Reed, a born-and-raised Florida boy, stepped out of his home on the southern terminus of the Indian Riverlagoon one early morning last week, looked up the river where he can see five miles on a clear day, and spotted a pod of dolphins.
“They weren’t feeding on snook,” he says. “They were moving through.”
The sight, which reminded him of how it once was when many more of them were feeding on snook and many other species, made his heart ache, he admits. It’s an ache, a longing for what was and what should be again, that isn’t new for the 83-year-old Mr. Reed, a founder and chairman emeritus of 1000 Friends of Florida.
A former assistant secretary of the interior under Presidents Nixon and then Ford — a man who has served six Florida governors and sat on the boards of such august outfits or agencies as theNational Geographic Society and Yellowstone National Park — Mr. Reed had just come back from a1000 Friends meeting in Key West to prepare for a fishing trip to the Bahamas.
His work in the world isn’t done, he insists, in part because 18 months ago Florida voters sought to give officials the most powerful tool they’ve ever wielded in an effort to resist the destruction of lands and waters in the state, only to have it misused by state legislators, in his view.
The tool is called Amendment 1 to the Florida constitution. About 75 percent of voters approved it — 4 million men and women in the voting booth. Its relatively simple language requires a third of the tax money collected from the documentary stamps that come with every real estate sale in Florida between 2015 and 2035 to be set aside and used to buy land and help save water now being polluted and degraded so much that it threatens the future of the state.
That will amount to some $700 million to $900 million or more each year in what is now a booming real estate economy attracting hoards of new residents and businesses to Florida.
It gives legislators and resource managers a chance to plan, a chance to do the hard bargaining and purchasing of lands throughout the state that are crucial to cleanup and restoration.
But many of them have no intention of doing that now, says Mr. Reed.
At the 1000 Friends meeting, “we talked about what the hell do we do after Gov. Scott and certain members of the Legislature are retired.
“The overwhelming sentiment shown by Amendment 1 voters has to be transplanted into acts at the local level to protect our land and water.
This has to be a citizens’ movement.
We’ve given up on government right now, because anti-government feeling toward the governor and his appointees, right down to the water management districts, is crushing any kind of sensible decision making on new plans blooming all over Florida.”
The devil and the details
Although the language of Amendment 1 orders that the monies not be used for other purposes, only about a third of more than $650 million collected this year has been channeled directly into land purchases and water conservation projects defined as strictly Amendment 1 uses.
And in the first year of the program, legislators put only about $17.5 million of what could have been more than $200 million into land acquisition — through a program called Florida ForeverLand Acquisition — and managed to reinterpret how Amendment 1 should be understood, their critics say.
But many legislators view such criticisms as unjustified.
“I think how we spent the money is completely consistent with the intention of Amendment 1,” says Rep. Matt Caldwell, a District 79 Republican.
“The amendment says the trust fund is created to acquire, store, manage and improve conservation lands — it’s a four-tier purpose. ‘Acquire’ is only one of four verbs. So I feel comfortable I have met my constitutional duties toward that Amendment.”
There’s a lot more involved in solving the problem than simply buying land, he argues — and leaving significant portions of that land in private hands has benefits both to agriculture and to conservation.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘we want Florida Forever, it’s land acquisition and that program used to get $300 million,’ Rep. Caldwell explains.
“But the problem is, Florida Forever used to be all bonded — borrowed — money. That’s the $175 million were paying on the debt for the existing bond. I put that expense in the land category (of Amendment 1) because it’s paying for land we already bought.”
Not only that, he adds, but as much as 70 percent of state lands may be in government hands — federal, state or local, he estimates. And that’s enough.
“So the rural and family land program, in which ranchers on their property can buy development rights — that’s a prototype of where the legislature is moving,” he says. “Keeping farmers on their land is a major part of the success we’ve had in recent years. The money goes farther.”
Those arguments don’t make it with critics who say those old purchases already were planned for, and voters clearly saw Amendment 1 as a way to get new land essential to cleaning water.
“Because we’re now using Amendment 1 money to fund existing programs that we previously funded through the general revenue, we don’t have these funds available to pay for outstanding programs urgently needed, like buying lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area (south of Lake Okeechobee), which is imperative for restoring the Everglades,” says Jennifer Hecker, director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
And as for leaving key lands in private hands, “it’s a slippery slope,” she warns. “The permanent solution is to purchase those lands because you can’t live without their storage and (filtering) capacity. It’s very dangerous to try to privatize clean-up.”
Critics liken that approach to the fox guarding the hen house, while acknowledging that many landowners do deeply care about the environment. But they have cared in the past, too, and still sold crucial lands to developers.
Several environmental groups, therefore, have sued the legislature to force it to use Amendment 1 monies properly, as they see it.
The ongoing battle
On Thursday last week, lawyers defending legislators in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at forcing them to put at least $222 million from the revenue of this single year into land acquisition denied each claim of the environmental groups challenging them.
David Guest, the managing attorney for Earthjustice Florida, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said that in spite of some improvement in the coming year’s spending pattern, when legislators will increase Amendment 1 monies aimed at land purchases, “more than half of money available will be spent on accounting gimmicks, instead. You thought, we thought, I thought we were buying land and restoring things. Instead we got air-conditioned buildings full of state employees that already had jobs — that’s what we’re paying for.”
Land that could help clean the water isn’t being purchased by the state because many legislators simply don’t like the idea, says Ms. Hecker.
“It’s no secret that the legislature wasn’t supportive of Amendment 1 from the onset,” she explains.
“So we’re still struggling with a lack of political will to implement the amendment in a manner consistent with voters’ wishes, mainly in regards to land conservation.
“We have to have dedicated funds to do that. The idea of dedicated funds is that you need to plan in advance for multi-year efforts. If you don’t know how much funding you will have available, you can’t plan anything.”
One of the keys in saving Florida water is land, and especially the purchase of land south of Lake Okeechobee where corporate sugar growers now dominate agricultural production, says State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a District 78 Republican.
It is not a widely popular opinion among Republican members of the state’s House and Senate.
“There are differing views in how we solve our problems,” she notes, encouraging compromise, “and I don’t think the state needs to open (for possible purchase) everything that is private property that might have some value to environmental preservation.
“But I do think we need to identify those lands that have the most value for preservation, and that have the most risk of being used for other purposes than conservation.”
Part of the solution must be to purchase key lands south of Lake Okeechobee, she says, where water originating near Orlando once flowed southward, filtering and cleaning itself naturally before reaching Florida Bay.
Now, the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area dominated by sugar growers stands in the way.
“I respect the agricultural interests south of the lake,” says Rep. Fitzenhagen. “But because they have benefitted from certain government programs that allow them to maintain their businesses at a high level of profitability, perhaps they could see their way to give back — a little quid pro quo.”
By “give back,” she means sell their land to the state so it can be restored as a natural flow-way.
Government programs include the huge system of canals, pumps and water managers funded by taxpayers to allow crops to be grown in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
But legislators have found ways to divert money away from land acquisitions in large part, the critics say: They’re paying for older land purchases and programs already established on which debt remains; they’re paying for maintenance of equipment and current water systems as well as salaries of managers; they’re paying private landowners not to develop their land — at least not now while they’re being paid not to; and they’re even paying to help Gov. Rick Scott satisfy his $700,000 penalty in a lawsuit for violating publics records law, as Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen pointed out last August.
The governor took $445,000 out of the Department of Environmental Protection monies to help pay the fine.
“It’s another kick in the teeth for the 4 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 1, believing DEPwould use newly designated revenues for the purchase and protection of conservation lands,” Mr. Hiaasen wrote. “Nobody dreamed that the governor — even this governor — would loot DEP to pay his own legal bills.”
As for using Amendment 1 money to support the salaries of land mangers, “Land management was already built into agency budgets in no small amount, but dollars approved for (land) purchase went for that,” points out Wayne Daltry, a planner, former Smart Growth director and environmental leader on the Southwest coast.
Meanwhile, environmental conditions are rapidly declining, as last winter’s devastating algal blooms and dirty water both east and west of Lake Okeechobee attest.
“God, a million fish. How shocking,” Mr. Reed exclaims, describing the estimated fish kill alone.
“The reason people live on the Indian River is for the light and color and the sunsets in the evening on those islands in one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. It’s a world treasure, but now stuff is coming out of Okeechobee and going right down the Caloosahatchee or (the St. Lucie).”
In addition to beauty and aesthetics, there is also the issue of survival, says John Cassani, chairman of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council.
“What the legislature is doing is not enough fast enough. We’re about to experience another major population boom. Add climate change effects to that, and there isn’t a lot of time to delay what needs to be done.”
For Rep. Fitzenhagen, “Water is the most valuable resource in the world. Everywhere. Across the globe. If we here don’t get on board and understand this, and manage it properly,” the consequences are likely to be dire.
Rep. Caldwell agrees with her, he says, but the issues of implementation will have to be worked out.
For Mr. Reed, the half-century champion of a cleaner Florida and a cleaner nation, Amendment 1 remains a chance to correct some significant mistakes of the past.
“We’re being overrun by development,” he says. “But by using Amendment 1 we can buy in. We can create big green zones, little green ones, green zones around cities to protect unique habitat. There are plenty of them that need to be created.”
And in creating them, perhaps, we create our future, he insists, echoing the sentiments of many, who acknowledge that development will continue.
“Our future depends on molding that development to protect the watershed. We must protect our water. That is the number one issue for Amendment 1.” ¦
If distribution were equitable (one analyst’s view of one region):
“Southwest Florida as a whole has about 10 percent of the state’s population, and area, also.
“So, if the $750 million per year in estimated money generated by the funding source (Amendment 1’s cut of the real estate stamp taxes) was applied equally statewide, then Southwest Florida would get about $75 million, or about double the funds for Conservation 20- 20 (a county program to buy undeveloped land) at its peak, applied over an area about seven times larger … annually. For 20 years.
“Since we are impacted by Lake Okeechobee, land programs in the Kissimmee and Everglades basins would benefit us — and perhaps be partially tolled against us. All that is if distribution was equitable.”
— Wayne Daltry, a planner and former head of Smart Growth