It is hard to quickly assess where Florida’s environmental movement went wrong.
In short, the persistent problem for environmental organizations that act as educators and sometimes lobbyists and advocates-is the imbalance between funding and need.
But that equation fails to capture the kernel of the problem: when money is scarce, what is the best strategy to engage the public and change, ultimately, the politics of environmental destruction?
Whatever strategies environmental organizations in Florida have followed, in concert or separately, have fallen far short. It is a failing grade based on results, not effort.
Millions of Floridians who do care about the environment assume someone else is doing the protecting. With threats multiplying–like global warming–a serious reckoning is long overdue. Let it begin, and, let the mainstream media pay attention.
In Florida, the golden years of the environmental movement were-very much like the national environmental movement-its first years.
The nation’s most important environmental laws-the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act-were passed by Congress during the term of a Republican president, Richard Nixon in the 1970’s.
Florida’s awakening on the role of government in environmental protection dates from the same era, when Nathaniel Reed acted as emissary to the environment for two Florida governors, Claude Kirk and Reuben Askew.
In the past 40 years, the only unqualified success has been Florida’s land acquisition programs, protecting millions of acres of land in perpetuity from development. But even then, there are serious problems.
Budgets to maintain public lands are woefully inadequate-from state parks to national parks. And there is more.
Protecting land in perpetuity, by mere ownership, does not guarantee that they will actually be protected. Watersheds that serve much of Florida’s fragile landscape have been badly deformed by groundwater mining, despite laws meant to protect the environment and environmental groups whose mission is to monitor this public trust.
Ground water withdrawals to irrigate farms and supply water to municipalities has had severe effects on public lands held in stewardship for future generations, draining wetlands and promoting the invasion of exotic species.
Most people trust Florida’s environmental groups to protect the environment. But today, Florida is literally awash in a sea of pollution. This happened in spite of the best efforts of environmental groups, and an honest discussion is due.
Have mainstream environmental groups failed Florida’s environment?
The movement is represented by charitable organizations. But only a few organizations that are incorporating according to IRS rules governing charities also engage in political activities, through separately incorporated affiliates.
Most people don’t understand the distinction. It is far easier to raise money from donors who receive a tax deduction for their contribution.
Environmental industry groups have proliferated in Florida: water works associations, “environmental” land use law, wetlands mitigation banking-these account for millions of dollars, if not billions, in income and profits for shareholders.
But the shareholders of the State of Florida are taxpayers, due the same access to clean water, clean air and natural resources as our predecessors.
Instead, the threats to the environment are multiplying: government agencies shirk their responsibilities, under the attentive eye of local legislatures and the state, to protect the public health and welfare of citizens-allowing toxins to proliferate, cutting budgets, re-assigning or firing dissenters, redrafting and honing legal language to always provide loopholes for polluters.
In a city like Miami, so many law firms and wealthy developers owe allegiance to profitable activities depending on exploiting the Everglades, that scarcely a peep has ever been heard from United Way or the Dade Community Foundation on funding for the environment.
Why haven’t environmental organizations protested?
The most important feature of restoring the Everglades ecosystem has been on the table for many decades: to expand the volume of cleansing wetlands below Lake Okeechobee, in a region where sugarcane is grown by some of the wealthiest farmers in the United States.
But the debate about the future of sugar has thoroughly channeled environmental groups into “acceptable” forms of discourse, allowing decision-makers to dictate the terms of the debate. Since that debate is always according to the prerogatives of campaign contributions, is it any wonder that sugar barons get whatever they want, whenever they want it?
While Florida’s environmental groups have been engaged in a continuous dog-fight with government agencies and elected officials over Everglades restoration, wetlands elsewhere have been disappearing at a furious rate.
In 2005, Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite, reporters for the St. Petersburg Times, wrote an outstanding series how Florida lost 84,000 acres of wetlands during a period a no-net loss of wetlands policy by the federal government.
In an interview in Environment Writer, Matthew Waite had this to say,
” all we knew was that traditional reporting wasn’t going to get us to a “total acres lost” figure because the agencies that are supposed to track that don’t. And we learned that using permitting data to try and create that on our own was pointless because the permitting data is incomplete and flawed. Remote sensing seemed like the only way we could answer the question of how many acres have been lost. I started reading and researching, and I checked out classes at the University of South Florida. Through the Times’ tuition reimbursement program, I enrolled in a USF course and started doing the analysis through what I learned on my own I guessed early on that the satellite analysis, at the pace I was going, would take two months. It ended up taking ten I figured that we could compare one image year to another and-Voila!-we’d have a total acres lost figure. When I did that, I found huge amounts of wetlands loss-way more than we ever expected.”
Two years have passed, and within the environmental community there has been virtual silence. not about the award-winning series per se-but about the failure of Florida’s environmental movement to match the threats and to claim good news and victories which are incomparably minor in respect to the awesome forces of industry that are deforming Florida’s landscape.
Have environmental organizations been so stretched and stressed, so boxed and cornered in fights on patches of ground that they’ve lost, completely, sight that the public imagination is only captured when the threats are clearly articulated?
Yes it is hard work against a ceaseless tide of disinformation and propaganda levied by well-honed public relations machinery. Exposing that, too, is the role of watchdogs or pitbulls as circumstances require.
Environmental organizations in Florida may not be able to do better than they are today, with limited funding and limited public support. Silence is no longer an option.
ALAN FARAGO lives in Coral Gables. He can be reached at email@example.com.