Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Environmental Protection chief talks sea level rise during Sarasota visit
SARASOSTA — New Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein spent a lot time talking about community Tuesday during a swing through Sarasota to speak to the Argus Foundation.
Conservation efforts “really become powerful when you have that connection to the community,” Valenstein said, highlighting the Celery Fields in Sarasota as a prime example of the community rallying to protect a natural resource.
Environmental advocates in the crowd say the DEP — an agency that often was accused of catering to business interests in recent years — is doing a better job of listening to the overall community under Valenstein.
Speaking to one of the region’s leading business advocacy groups, Valenstein said almost nothing about the businesses that seek various permits from the DEP. There was no talk about speeding up the DEP permitting process, something Gov. Rick Scott has bragged about in the past.
Instead, Valenstein focused on the DEP’s conservation efforts, from Everglades restoration to land conservation and establishing a new state park. Valenstein even touched on sea level rise, a nod to the environmental changes expected because of climate change.
A 2015 report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting concluded — based on information from “former DEP officials, consultants, volunteers and records” — that officials with the DEP “have been ordered not to use the term ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in any official communications, emails or reports.”
Scott denied that DEP officials were ordered not to use those terms and Valenstein, who has worked closely with the governor for seven years, said in an interview after his speech that “I’ve never seen anything to restrict the ability of our amazing state employees, certainly for myself, to work on important issues like sea level rise.
“I know how critical an issue it is,” Valenstein added. “It impacts coastal communities throughout Florida.”
Earlier, Valenstein told the audience at the Sarasota Yacht Club that “we’re looking to work with our coastal communities to address issues like sea level rise.”
One way the DEP can help tackle the problem of sea level rise is by allowing those on the front lines of the issue to tap the agency’s scientific expertise, Valenstein said.
“First, as a department we have a tremendous team of technical experts,” he said. “Let’s have those experts join with your local community, discuss your problems, provide funding and come up with solutions.”
Among those who came to see Valenstein was Jono Miller, one of the Sarasota region’s more prominent environmental advocates. Miller noted that Valenstein visited Myakka River State Park recently for a bird count and later met with environmental advocates at the Celery Fields.
“That was encouraging,” Miller said.
Under Valenstein’s leadership, the DEP also has been listening to concerns raised by environmental advocates about an update to Myakka River State Park’s management plan, Miller said.
A proposal to allow cattle grazing at the park was “swatted down” a while ago, Miller said, but the plan still contained other measures opposed by environmental advocates, including cabbage palm harvesting.
Valenstein said under his direction the DEP is “going to start addressing our unit management plans for state parks in a way that allows all partners to engage.”
“It takes a little bit more time, but I think we get a better result at the end of the day,” he said.
Asked if activities such a cattle grazing are off the table for Myakka going forward, Valenstein said “anything is off the table if it doesn’t preserve the resource for future generations and make it more accessible to Floridians to enjoy that resource and learn about it.”
Valenstein also addressed bills moving through the Legislature that would establish a framework for the DEP to take over wetlands permitting from the federal government. Critics worry that the agency would make it easier to get the permits, resulting in more wetland losses.
“We could only receive a delegated program if it’s as protective or more protective than the federal government,” Valenstein said.
Some environmental advocates have accused Scott of trying to rewrite his environmental record because he may run for a U.S. Senate seat this year. They point to a series of moves he made early on his administration that were sharply opposed by environmentalists, including rolling back the state’s growth management regulations and cutting funding for water management districts.
Whatever Scott’s motivations, “the change is welcome,” Miller said.
*Herald Tribune photo by Mike Lang