Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Florida tribes are blasting an agreement that shifts control of wetlands development from the federal government to the state, saying it's an attack on their sovereignty and will have far-reaching and destructive environmental effects.
The federal government ceded over 90,000 acres — ranging from scrubby cattle fields to pine barrens to vast, underwater fields of seagrass — to the Seminole and Miccosukee decades ago when the tribes were formally recognized. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers historically has maintained oversight of wetlands development.
Now, conservationists and Florida’s dominant tribes say, an understaffed and overwhelmed state agency will control dredge and fill permits for these environmentally sensitive areas — despite their furious objections.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler officially handed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection control of Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act earlier this month.
Developers have been working for years to elbow federal regulators out of the way.
Under the Clean Water Act, developers who wanted to drain and fill a federal wetland needed a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency could veto a permit if it believed the project would harm fresh-water sources and destroy habitat critical to panthers, deer and other endangered wildlife.
That control now falls to the Department of Environmental Protection, which opponents say Gov. Rick Scott gutted in 2011 at the urging of lobbyists. More than 600 positions were cut at the agency, which also handles permit requests involving state-designated wetlands. Many who lost their jobs were long-serving wetland experts.
The Everglades Coalition, made up of more than 60 environmentally focused nonprofits, issued a resolution in early November opposing the move.
"The environmental community stands steadfastly against the state's request to assume administration of a Clean Water Act Section 404 program because this would jeopardize vital natural resources at a time of unprecedented population growth combined with striking environmental degradation," the group said.
The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians said in an official statement: “The tribe is deeply appalled about the loss of culturally sensitive sites and the potential destruction of the Miccosukee way of life. This way of life is integrally entwined within the Florida Everglades.”
The transfer of authority happened at an unusual breakneck pace, said Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell.
“This has always been a runaway train (with) every shortcut possible taken in the public process … a rush to get it approved before the change in federal administration,” Wraithmell said.
The biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the normal pre-approval information gathering, “only came out two weeks ago, long after the state’s application was submitted,” effectively excluding it from the process, she said.
The Florida Home Building Association has complained of the expense of meeting the complex regulatory requirements to build houses and communities. “In home building and development, time means money,” the group said.
Things just got easier for builders, said Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, who represents central Florida’s 11th District.
“Thanks to the leadership of DEP secretary, Gov. DeSantis, state legislators and others, even local shareholders” – Webster corrected himself – “stakeholders … it’s going to be a model for other states,” he said, “from Everglades restoration to infrastructure projects to all kinds of other things, sustaining those projects on wetlands and endangered species while also protecting taxpayer dollars.”
Not so, explained Miccosukee elder Betty Osceola, who said the tribe was blindsided by the announcement.
The tribe had an agreement with the federal government, but it never consented to state control, she said. "Why are they trying to erode tribal sovereignty and take away tribal lands?”
Osceola said the EPA is "in cahoots" with the Army Corps and Florida to take federal lands and move them to the state’s jurisdiction.
“The developers will get more permits to build massive housing developments over wetlands, the rock miners will get more permits to extract limestone under Florida’s natural landscape, and the road builders will get more permits to pave over the ponds, lakes, rivers and swamps in Florida’s paradise.”
Massive outbreaks of red tide – algae blooms caused by fertilizer runoff – have already resulted from overbuilding and poor regulation in the Everglades. It drove away beachgoers from Florida’s shorelines and damaged the economy even before the pandemic.
The agreement also opens the door to similar action in other states.
At the handover ceremony, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Director Noah Valenstein pledged ongoing dialogue with the Miccosukee and Seminole who live in and around the Everglades. But in its statement, the Miccosukee Tribe said that hasn’t happened.
“The Miccosukee, along with several other affected tribes, have engaged in limited government-to-government consultation with the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers regarding the overall assumption application by the state of Florida. However, when the Miccosukee requested specific consultation on this critical interpretation, we were denied.”
The fate of the state's protected species concerns Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
“Handing federal oversight of Florida’s wetlands and waterways to the state’s pro-development regulators will speed the bulldozing of the special places that are home to 130 of our most endangered plants and animals,” he said. "It’s time our regulators embraced the reality that protecting natural areas and wildlife is not only in the nation’s best long-term environmental interest, but its best long-term economic interest.”
It’s also unclear how the state of Florida, home to dozens of protected species, will address Endangered Species Act compliance under the new permitting process.
“We remind our federal partners of their responsibility to tribal nations and encourage them to come to return to the table and continue consultation with all affected tribes on this critical change in the Florida landscape,” the Miccosukee Tribe said in a statement.
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Queens Museum, and has produced three films on Native musicians.
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