On May 11, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) scientist Connie Bersok was suspended , pending an investigation, ostensibly for refusing to rubber stamp a Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank application to turn a north Florida pine plantation into a wetlands mitigation bank. I was only peripherally aware of mitigation banks before reading this story. But fresh from a weekend stay at Gold Head Branch State Park, up in Keystone, FL – in Clay County where Highlands Ranch plans to manage a 1,500-acre wetlands mitigation bank – and where our little waterfront cabin overlooked only a baked mud lake bed, the topic drew my interest. It’s a topic that should draw more Floridians’ interest.
As a matter of fact, many if not most of the lakes in the area were dry . There weren’t many wetlands to
speak of, and much of the area is and has historically been pine forest, as evidenced by the sawmill history of Clay County in the 1880s. By their own description, the land HRMB wants to manage currently consists of about 1000 acres of “mesic and xeric pine plantation, which will be restored to native mesic flatwoods and sandhill communities, 223.9 acres of hydric pine plantation, which will be restored to native mixed forested wetlands/hammock communities, 328.1 acres of isolated and contiguous wetlands that will be preserved and enhanced as part of the mitigation plan, and 32.4 acres of trail roads, power lines and structure.”
According to the EPA, a mitigation bank is ” a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that
has been restored, established, enhanced, or (in certain circumstances) preserved for the purpose of providing compensation for unavoidable impacts to aquatic resources permitted under Section 404 or a similar state or local wetland regulation.1 A mitigation bank may be created when a government agency, corporation, nonprofit organization, or other entity undertakes these activities under a formal agreement with a regulatory agency. ”
Despite what I’m sure are good environmental intentions, I see nothing but a gold plated loop hole for developers here, a way to play an environmental shell game with our natural resources. By virtue of the mere existence of mitigation banks, there is no reason to even really try to avoid environmental impacts on aquatic resources. Developers know they can simply buy their way out any impact by purchasing mitigation credits, a feel good pay off that supposedly off sets any loss of land or resources caused by a project.
And in the case of HRMB, it’s land that is not even wetlands to begin with. The majority of the “mesic” (seasonally wet) and “xeric” (dry) pine plantations they want to restore to their “native mesic flatwoods and sandhill communities” are still pine forests, not wetlands. Additionally, it takes nature infinite periods of undisturbed time to create a true wetlands (or pine forest, for that matter), with all its commensurate flora and fauna. And even then, the flora and fauna of a north Florida wetlands is going to be different from the disrupted flora and fauna of areas for which the mitigations credits are being purchased.
Furthermore, the mitigation area set aside for compensation was already there – maybe doctored up to look like a wetlands, but it’s land that already existed and has its own native plants and animals (or did, until it was recast as a new improved habitat). Now it symbolically also represents land lost elsewhere, even though the land it’s standing in for is still lost, and even though the mitigation area may not be anywhere near the area where developmental damage occurred, and even though, as in the case of Highlands Ranch, the mitigation lands may not even be wetlands.
And that’s where Connie Bersok took issue with the Highlands Ranch application. When Bersok, in the course of her job, in the service of her state and Florida’s environment, pointed this out to the DEP, Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn told her to ignore the rules and put the permit through. Bersok stood her ground quite publicly, “I hereby state my objection to the intended agency action and refusal to recommend this permit for issuance.”
Two days later, she was suspended. She has not spoken to the media, pending the ongoing investigation into her suspension and the Highlands Ranch application. The DEP , for its part, maintains in a May 31 response to the Tampa Bay Times report about the issue, “Ms. Bersok was not suspended because she refused to issue a permit. She was placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation by the department’s Inspector General. It is not the department’s policy to discuss employee personnel matters in the newspaper or with the general public.”
Furthermore, the DEP assures, “The permit has not been issued. In fact, the department has not completed its review of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit application. Any decision made about this permit will be based on sound science and within the confines of Florida law and the environmental rules that govern the department’s action.”
That would be good, especially since the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s stated mission is to “ protect, conserve and manage Florida’s natural resources and enforce the State’s environmental laws.”
The DEP acknowledges criticism of mitigation banking, but says it has made improvements in a “proposed new approach” to permitting that “holds the bank operator more accountable to the required environmental result and allows for the release of credits only after environmental restoration is completed and verified to be successful. “ The DEP says it will tie credit release schedules more closely to “specific and measurable ecological conditions” using an “environmental-results based approach.”
“Despite the Times’ mischaracterization of the department’s actions and environmental policies, “ the DEP says, “the department and its employees are committed to doing the right thing by the rules and statues that govern its actions, by Florida taxpayers and by the environment.”
We don’t need any more houses, apartments, condos or shopping facilities. A large percentage of the ones we have now are standing foreclosed, abandoned, and closed for business. But we do need clean air and water, the ultimate “specific and measurable” ecological conditions.
Instead of trying to mitigate damage to our natural resources, and pretending as if mitigation credits are anything more than imaginary compensation for lands and resources that are lost forever, maybe its time to hold Florida accountable, and to look at limiting development as the only “unavoidable impact” of preserving what’s left of our natural heritage.
Consider sharing your thoughts with the DEP and Governor Scott , and letting them know whether you prefer mitigation credits for developers, or mitigating further damage to our natural resources in more effective and enduring ways, like significantly limiting further development and properly enforcing our environmental laws, and let’s stop playing shell games with Florida.
Note: You can also visit Environment Florida to send a message directly to Governor Scott and Deputy Secretary Herschel Vinyard.