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With thousands of unique species of flora and fauna, many of which are federally endangered or threatened, Florida faces distinct conservation challenges.

Several bills introduced in the Florida Legislature this session have the potential to affect some of the state’s most-loved species and the habitats they depend on. Measures include enhanced state review of land changes within or near the Everglades Protection Area, establishing an Office of the Blue Economy, reversing a 2020 law that limits rights of nature legislation and developing a seagrass mitigation banking system. Many of these same ideas were proposed last session but died in various committees.

Here’s what this year’s habitats, biodiversity and conservation legislation is all about:

Everglades Protection Area:

evergladesNearly 8 million people rely on the Everglades for drinking water, and at least 60 endangered species use the area for habitat and food. The 18,000-square-mile wetland also contributes to flood control and provides recreation opportunities for many state visitors.

Two Everglades Protection Area bills — HB 729, introduced by Florida State Rep. Vance Aloupis (R), and SB 932, introduced by Florida State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R) — would increase the level of review needed for changes to comprehensive plans on lands within or near the Everglades Protection Area.

The Everglades Protection Area is a large tract of land that encompasses the entirety of Everglades National Park, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and a few other surrounding water conservation areas. This area was designated by the Everglades Forever Act in 1994 and has been the focus of a phosphorus reduction program.

According to the 1000 Friends of Florida, an environmental advocacy organization that supports the legislation, “poorly planned development could jeopardize the ongoing restoration of Florida’s Everglades and undermine the massive $9 billion from taxpayers already invested in this endeavor.”

Two bills of the same name that would have prohibited oil drilling in the Everglades Protection Area were introduced in last year’s session and died.

UPDATE: HB 729 died in Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee; SB 932 died in Environment and Natural Resources.

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Office of the Blue Economy

gulf of mexicoFlorida is the only state in the continental U.S. largely surrounded by coastal seas and oceans, and Florida State Rep. Kelly Skidmore (D) is looking to capitalize on this fact. If passed, HB 1081 would establish an Office of Blue Economy within the Department of Economic Opportunity. SB 1454, introduced by Florida State Sen. Loranne Ausley (D), would do the same. According to the World Bank, the blue economy refers to “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.”

The bill calls for the office to regularly publish the latest ocean and coastal research from Florida’s universities so that ocean-related businesses could make smarter decisions about these valuable resources.

Rep. Skidmore told Florida Politics that the office would look out “for the economic health of the water, would care about its environmental health and work with those agencies to make sure that we’re doing all the right things.”

UPDATE: HB 1081 died in Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee; SB 932 died in Commerce and Tourism.

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Rights of Nature

riverDuring the 2020 Florida legislative session, SB 712, or the Clean Waterways Act, aimed to address pollution risks associated with Florida’s aging wastewater infrastructure. The bill passed, and tagged onto it was language that prohibits “local governments from recognizing or granting certain legal rights to the natural environment or granting such rights relating to the natural environment to a person or political subdivision,” according to the bill text.

But during the 2021 session, HB 6049, introduced by Florida State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), aimed to remove such provisions so that local governments could make their own call on granting what are referred to as “rights of nature” policies. But that bill died in the Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee.

Eskamani has filed the bill again this year in the house (HB 6003). Florida State Sen. Gary Farmer (D) has filed an identical bill (SB 1854) in the Senate. Local governments in Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, California and others outside the U.S. have granted rights to trees, oceans, and animals — a growing legal trend known as the “Rights of Nature” movement. Last November, Orange County became the first county in Florida and the largest municipality in the U.S. to legally recognize the rights of nature.

Just like how many corporations have rights that would normally be given to individuals, supporters of the Rights of Nature movement argue that natural resources, such as rivers and springs, should have legal “personhood,” too.

“Many nonhuman entities have rights under the law, like corporations, ships, and trusts. Why not grant similar rights to trees, birds and bees?” wrote Elizabeth Drayer, an environmental advocate and lawyer, in a 2019 guest column for the Orlando Sentinel.

Under current laws, people can sue to stop environmental damage if they can show they have been personally harmed as a result of mismanagement. Giving legal rights to nature would allow lawyers to bring about cases that are focused on the harm to nature itself.

Supporters of preempting, or stopping governments from passing these kinds of laws, argue that “litigation costing cities and developers millions of dollars and inflating housing costs” could result from allowing these types of lawsuits, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The Florida Farm Bureau told WUFT that giving rights to nature would be unnecessary, as “Floridians already have ample opportunity under existing law to challenge activities or government actions they feel result in harm to the environment.”

The idea that facets of nature can be considered autonomous entities is not new. Indigenous people have long held beliefs that land is not property, and other nations like Nepal, New Zealand and India have already incorporated provisions for rights of nature into their legal systems.

UPDATE: HB 6003 died in Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee; SB 1854 died in Environment and Natural Resources. 

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Seagrass Mitigation Banks

seagrassFlorida is home to more than two million acres of seagrass, a flowering plant that helps maintain water clarity, provides habitat to marine organisms and stabilizes the shoreline. But problems with the state’s water quality have led to massive seagrass declines: Tampa Bay has lost 13%, Sarasota has lost 18% and the Indian River Lagoon has lost 58% of its seagrass. Seagrass decline made big news in 2021 because of its impact on the state’s beloved manatee. A record number of manatees died in 2021, and this time their deaths weren’t attributed to boat collisions or cold spells, but starvation as they had trouble finding enough of their main diet staple: seagrass.

Two bills introduced this session, SB 198, introduced by Florida State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R) and HB 349, introduced by Florida State Reps. Tyler Sirois (R) and Toby Overdorf (R), would allow developers to purchase seagrass mitigation credits from private mitigation banks when they plan to build on existing seagrass beds. In theory, these credits would go toward planting new seagrass beds in other locations to offset the ecological damage.

Proponents of the bills argue “that incentivizing third parties to protect and maintain a large, healthy area of seagrass beds in advance with an off-site mitigation bank can provide better protection of seagrass resources than permittee-responsible mitigation,” according to a staff analysis for SB 198.

A similar bill passed in 2008 was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. In his veto letter, the then governor “raised concerns about the long-term success of artificially-created seagrass beds,” and stated that “seagrass mitigation banks would likely result in the net destruction of seagrass beds,” according to a staff analysis for SB 198.

In Florida, mitigation banks for other kinds of wetlands are not new. But a study done in 2007 for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that fewer than half of the mitigation banks reviewed had achieved the goals required by their permits.

“Given the track record of failure for mitigation credits, respected environmental organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy, Florida Conservation Voters and Save the Manatee Club oppose the measures because seagrass is particularly one of the most costly and difficult habitats to restore since the water quality has to be good,” reads an editorial by the Florida Climate Reporting Network.

A similar bill was introduced in 2021 but died in its second committee of reference. In the analysis of that bill, the DEP stated, “preserving seagrass resources is not appropriate for compensatory mitigation, because if loss or degradation of seagrass resources are said to be offset by preserving existing seagrasses that are already protected then there will be a net loss of seagrass resources.”

UPDATE: SB 198 died in Community Affairs; HB 349 died in Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. 

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Endangered & Threatened Species

pantherFlorida is home to hundreds of imperiled animal and plant species. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “imperiled species are fish and wildlife species that meet criteria to be listed as federally endangered, federally threatened, state threatened or Species of Special Concern.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has primary responsibility for those species that are federally endangered or threatened, but the FWC works in close partnership to help conserve them.

In December 2021, USFWS announced that it is considering stripping protections from two of Florida’s endangered species: the Florida panther and the Key deer. But, two identical bills, HB 711, introduced by Florida State Rep. Ben Diamond (D) and SB 238, introduced by Florida State Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) would direct the FWC and the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services to continue to protect certain species, regardless of federal status.

“Notwithstanding declassification under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, the commission shall continue to protect species that meet the definition of endangered or threatened,” reads the bill text.

The bill also adds the language “including climate change,” as a factor to determine stressors facing threatened and endangered species. Additionally, the bill adds language that would prohibit the agencies from considering the economic cost of protecting a species when determining if it should be listed as threatened or endangered.

UPDATE: HB 711 died in Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee; SB 238 died in Environment and Natural Resources.

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Inventories of Critical Wetlands

wetlandThe state of Florida first began setting aside money to purchase public land in order to conserve its natural and cultural resources in 1964 through the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. The original source of money for the fund was a 5% tax on outdoor clothing and equipment, which generated approximately $1.5 million a year. Today the money comes from documentary stamp taxes paid on real estate transactions. Money for conservation and recreation lands are spent through Florida Forever, the world’s largest public land acquisition program.

According to LandScope America, “Florida Forever and its landmark predecessor program, Preservation 2000, have together acquired more than 2 million acres of the most significant natural areas in Florida since 1990.”

Two similar bills, HB 761, introduced by Florida State Reps. Keith Truenow (R) and Daisy Morales (D) and SB 882, introduced by Florida State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R), would require the state’s five water management districts to develop a list of critical wetlands for acquisition using funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. When developing the list, the districts should consider the following criteria:

  • The ecological value of the wetland, as determined by the physical and biological components of the environmental system.
  • The effect of the wetland on water quality and flood mitigation.
  • The ecosystem restoration value of the wetland.
  • The inherent susceptibility of the wetland to development due to its geographical location or natural aesthetics.

Property owners who wish to have their property removed from the list would need to submit a certified letter requesting removal from the district governing board.

UPDATE: HB 761 laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by SB 882, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval.

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Land Acquisition Trust Fund

This legislative session, several bills are on the table that address the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which was introduced in 1964 to set aside money to purchase public land for outdoor recreation and conservation. The fund led to the establishment of several other programs to allot money for a variety of conservation purposes.

Appropriation bill HB 603, introduced by Florida State Rep. Melony Bell (R), would provide $20 million annually to the Department of Environmental Protection for projects that would help to improve the water quality of rivers in the Central Florida area. Its companion, SB 1400, introduced by Florida State Sen. Danny Burgess (R) would do the same. The funds would implement the 2017 Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act, which declared that “priority funding consideration must be given to solutions to manage the water resources of these headwaters and the local Floridan Aquifer system in the most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally beneficial way.”

However, some are concerned whether the new bills would properly utilize these funds.

In 2015, the Legislature was sued by environmental groups for improperly spending funds on gray water infrastructure, instead of what they refer to as nature-based solutions.

Lindsay Cross, a lobbyist with Florida Conservation Voters argued in a committee meeting that the same thing could happen with the language of the current bill.

“We recognize that freshwater sources are becoming more scarce as our population grows, and that it is wise to plan for the future,” Cross told the committee. “This is why it’s even more important to invest our public dollars strategically and as the voters intended, toward conservation and restoration.”

A similar bill, HB 449 introduced by Florida State Rep. Jim Mooney (R) and companion bill SB 602 introduced by Florida State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R) would allocate $20 million from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to the Department of Environmental Protection. The funds would implement the 2016 Florida Keys Stewardship Act which, according to a staff analysis, “modified legislative intent provisions to specify that it is the intent of the Legislature to protect and improve the nearshore water quality of the Florida Keys through federal, state and local funding of water quality improvement projects, including the construction and operation of wastewater management facilities.”

Unlike HB 603, it is specified that the funds won’t apply to wastewater projects. The funds would go toward restoration of the Florida Keys, Florida Bay, coral reef ecosystems, and land acquisition within the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern. The reef in the Florida Keys is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States.

Coral reefs in Florida and beyond have been plagued by stony coral tissue loss disease, which causes the coral’s tissue cells to rupture and die. Half of the corals in the reef have already been affected. In an interview with News4Jax, Andy Stamper, a conservation science manager for Walt Disney World, the disease has “spread like wildfire” since its original discovery in the Miami area.

Another threat is coral bleaching, a condition that occurs when corals experience extreme temperature changes or other unusual adjustments. Though it is possible for the corals to recover, it can lead to stress that makes them more vulnerable to other conditions. Both coral bleaching and stony coral tissue loss disease are exacerbated by warming ocean temperatures.

HB 1377 introduced by Florida State Rep. Rick Roth (R) and SB 1816 introduced by Florida State Sen. Linda Stewart (D) would put into place an annual transfer of $100 million from the Florida Forever Trust Fund to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program in the U.S. It is designed to set aside funds for the state to purchase conservation areas to protect Florida’s natural and cultural heritage.

“The voters had voted overwhelmingly for much more than that,” Sen. Stewart told Florida Politics, “but I think the $100 million is a good start toward what they voted for.”

The bills would also extend the 2040 expiration date of bonds that had previously been issued to the Florida Forever Act to the year 2054.

UPDATE: HB 603 died in Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee; SB 1400 died in Appropriations; HB 449 died in Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee; HB 1377 died in Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee; SB 1816 died in Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government.

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Other related bills:

  • Vessel Anchoring – HB 1065 and SB 1432 (HB 1065 was laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by SB 1432, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval.)
  • Mangrove Replanting & Restoration – HB 1129 and SB 1416 (HB 1129 died in State Affairs Committee; SB 1416 died in Environment and Natural Resources)
  • Clam & Seagrass Restoration – HB 9161 (indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration)
  • Ecosphere Restoration Institute Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Statewide Restoration and Aquaculture Program – HB 4569 (indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration)
  • Indian River Lagoon Seagrass Restoration Project – HB 4779 (indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration)
  • Expansion of Manatee Rehabilitation at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature – HB 4927 (indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration)

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