Washington, DC — In February 2001, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service strenuously objected to waves of proposed developments slated for southwest Florida, according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Over ensuing months as the Bush Administration transitioned in, however, Service objections to projects quieted and then disappeared altogether.
In tones vastly different from its current pronouncements, the Fish & Wildlife Service argued in 2001 that the lax permitting practices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had “exacerbated wetland losses in southwest Florida and has hastened the loss of other important wildlife habitat.” The Service expressed alarm at “the trend in wetland habitat loss and its contribution to significant degradation of aquatic ecosystems.” It also warned that the present drive for development threatened to undo the work of “billions of dollars” invested in Everglades restoration.
The February 2001 presentation by the Service focused on 24 proposed projects as well as 15 other projects where the FWS had already formally objected. Significantly, virtually all of the projects have gone ahead notwithstanding Service concerns that fell into three major groupings:
- No assessment of cumulative effects. Each project’s impacts were considered in isolation, without adding up the total effects of all the projects. As a result, the region’s ecosystem is sustaining death by a thousand cuts;
- Improper mitigation. According to the Service, the Corps routinely violates its own policy of not accepting creation of new wetlands or other supposedly compensatory actions by the developer “in lieu of first avoiding, then minimizing adverse impacts.” As a result, natural wetlands are being destroyed in return for poorly functioning artificial replacements; and
- Failure to conduct required analyses of alternatives. The Service contends that the Corps sidesteps its own policies and tilts the regulatory playing field so that development is always the preferred alternative.
“Four years after sounding the alarm, the Fish & Wildlife Service has fallen through the political looking glass and now defends what it once condemned,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization is representing Service biologists who say that their environmental concerns have been squelched. “The very same projects that the Service cited for exacerbating environmental problems are now proceeding without a hitch, despite the irreversible problems they will cause.”
Environmental groups have since challenged a number of the destructive projects listed by the Fish & Wildlife Service. For example, a federal district court invalidated a mining permit for Florida Rock Industries last fall in a suit brought by the National Wildlife Federation.
“Unfortunately, all of the ill effects predicted by the Fish & Wildlife Service in 2001 are coming true today,” Ruch added. “Soon, the only open space in southwest Florida outside of federal preserves will be on golf courses.”