Florida ag commissioner sees “common cause” in Everglades as new federal refuge announced

WESTON — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at the Everglades Coalition Conference on Friday called for “smart” environmental restoration while the U.S. Interior Secretary announced a federal initiative with landowners to conserve portions of the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee.

Putnam is the first agriculture commissioner to speak at the conference, according to organizers. More than 500 people attended the conference in Weston.

With Gov. Rick Scott having taken office this week pledging to cut government spending and create a business-friendly climate in Florida, some Everglades supporters said they were uncertain about what role the new governor will play on the issue.

In Fort Lauderdale, Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife is conducting a preliminary study of 150,000 acres in the northern Everglades headwaters for a possible new national wildlife refuge. The area includes 50,000 acres of potential purchases and 100,000 acres of possible conservation easements, which involve paying private landowners to conserve their land.

“The partnerships being formed would protect and improve water quality north of Lake Okeechobee, restore wetlands, and connect existing conservation lands and important wildlife corridors to support the greater Everglades restoration effort,” Salazar said in a statement.

Prior to the announcement, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told the Everglades conference, “I’m very, very encouraged.”

“Now is the time to demonstrate the importance of restoring the Everglades to folks around the country,” he said, adding that the cause already has the attention of the Obama administration.

In his earlier remarks at the conference, Putnam said he is creating an office of water and energy within the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The new office would combine the efforts of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy with bio-energy initiatives launched under former Commissioner Charles Bronson.

Putnam also said environmentalists and landowners share a desire to conserve the Everglades and can work together. His remarks seemed to be a contrast from Bronson, who had criticized some environmentalists and state land purchases in recent years.

Farms provide environmental benefits including wildlife habitat and water quality, Putnam said. Driving farmers out of business, he added, will cause farms to be converted to more harmful land uses.

“It is our common cause for Florida’s $100 billion agricultural economy to remain strong, remain profitable, to remain sustainable so future generations of farmers will be able to provide the same stewardship practices,” he said.

Outside the conference hall, Putnam told reporters he won’t vote against all state land purchases as his predecessor had done for the past year.

Bronson had said he favored conservation easements that provided payments to private landowners. Putnam said he would weigh state purchases on a case-by-case basis.

Representatives of Audubon of Florida, a conference host organization, had invited Putnam and praised his appearance at the conference.

“His presentation was extraordinary,” said Charles Lee, Audubon’s director of Advocacy. “Of the whole crop of new elected officials in Florida my recommendation is watch Adam Putnam. He’s got a grasp of the environmental land conservation issues up there that nobody else [in Tallahassee] has.”

The Everglades Coalition announced its priorities for the coming year of establishing protected wildlife corridors between existing conservation lands, providing adequate state and federal funding for Everglades restoration and implementing protective water quality standards, including the controversial federal numeric nutrient standards.

Conference co-chairs Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society and Julie Hill-Gabriel of Audubon of Florida downplayed Scott’s absence, saying that the new governor had just taken office this week and had a lot on his plate. Other environmentalists said they’re uncertain of the new governor’s stance on the Everglades and other environmental issues. Scott told reporters on Friday that he wasn’t aware of the conference.

“I think we need to give Gov. Scott a chance in the starting block,” said Frank Jackalone, senior field officer with the Sierra Club in St. Petersburg. “But when he makes the first mistake, Sierra Club will be there to jump on it.”

(Top photo provided by the South Florida Water Management District. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting brucebritchie@gmail.com.)