Saturday, April 13, 2013

Wetlands and Influence in Florida

Florida has lost nearly 1/2 of its wetlands.
Click for photo credit.
One of the new advances in wetland mitigation in Florida is something called wetlands banking.  Florida has approximately 11.4 million acres of wetlands.  But over the last few centuries, Florida lost nearly half its wetlands to development.  Research that I conducted with my students in the past in various developed areas of the Tampa Bay area show incredible wetlands loss through infilling during the development process.  Losses in other parts of the state came as a result of agricultural development or mining.

Now there are laws to prevent widespread destruction of wetlands without some form of mitigation.  There are a number of mitigation options available.  For example, if you destroy one wetland, you could build a larger wetland of the same type somewhere else.  This has been controversial because the creation of the wetland comes at the loss of upland habitat.  Plus, many wetlands are difficult to construct.  When one considers that wetlands are ecosystems that evolved over centuries, the idea of constructing a mature ecosystem that includes the development of unique water, soil, plant, and animal assemblages becomes daunting.  While there have been some successes in wetland construction, there are also examples of failure.

Thus, one relatively new management strategy is wetlands banking.  Banking requires the preservation of wetlands property in perpetuity in exchange for the destruction of wetlands.  The banking requirement size is larger than the size of the loss of wetlands.

There is big money in wetlands banking and 10 wetland credits can sell for a million dollars.  There are many investors who have moved into wetlands banking as a lucrative business.

Given the money involved, there are organizations that try to game the system. Check out this article from the Tampa Bay Times about the state's top wetlands regulator who was suspended for refusing to permit a wetlands bank project.  Using standard techniques, she permitted a wetlands bank developer for a smaller amount of wetlands than the developer hoped for.  She was suspended for refusing to issue the permit and the permit was granted by managers above her.  In addition, the managers waived a state requirement that compelled the company to show that they had the funds to build and manage the wetlands bank.

To many watching this, the deal smelled of political influence and corruption taking precedence over science and established policy.  The company even tried to get the state legislature to change the rules just for this project.  A judge recently sided with the suspended wetlands regulator and required the investors to follow the established rules.  The judge ruled that the company can develop the wetlands bank with the 280 credits the regulator allowed.  This is worth approximately $280,000,000.  They were trying to get credit for 425 credits which would have been worth approximately $425,000,000.

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