Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is entrusted with maintaining the balance between business interests and the delicate ecology of Florida’s precious wetlands.
But in the last several years, officials at the DEP who have sought to regulate the expansion of development in order to protect these valuable natural resources have faced retribution from pro-business officials.
The latest is Connie Bersok, Florida’s top wetlands expert. Last week, she refused to authorize a permit to a company seeking to develop a pine plantation in the northern part of the state.
The company, Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank, is one of several across Florida that helps restore lost wetlands in exchange for credits issued by the state. Those credits are then sold to private developers who want to build on top of current wetlands. In theory, this system is meant to ensure that every acre of lost wetlands is replaced.
But as the Tampa Bay Times has reported, the credit system is deeply flawed:
In a series of articles in 2006, the Times found serious problems with Florida’s mitigation banks. Some got more than half of their wetland credits for land that was actually dry. A 2007 study done for the DEP reported that fewer than half of the banks reviewed had achieved their restoration goals.
But mitigation banking is still a big business. Wetland credits in northeast Florida have sold for up to $100,000 each, [Glenn] Lowe said.
Bersok said that Highlands was not helping build the amount of wetlands claimed, thereby stating her “objection to the intended agency action and refusal to recommend this permit for issuance.” She was suspended for her decision.
Because companies can take advantage of loopholes, some state environmental officials are reluctant to grant permits to mitigation banks like Highlands Ranch. But those decisions have resulted in negative consequences for those who speak out:
“They’re scrappy, these guys,” said Glenn Lowe, who lost his job with the St. Johns River Water Management District after he refused to give Highlands Ranch what its owners wanted. Former water district executive director Kirby Green said Lowe and other employees lost their jobs because Gov. Rick Scott’s pro-business administration didn’t like the way they treated Highlands Ranch.
In fact, environmental protection is a pro-business strategy. Wetlands are an important part of Florida’s economy. In 2009, the Everglades National Park supported 2,792 jobs and over $165 million in economic benefits, according to analysis from Headwaters Economics.
ThinkProgress reached out to Connie Bersok, who declined to be interviewed because she is still employed by the DEP.