With the list of nominees to lead the Trump U.S. Department of Interior including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the states' rights battle to wrest control of environmental policy from the federal government is tinder set to fire.
In Florida, that tinder is already lit in a way that should alarm the American public. Florida Governor Rick Scott and his political appointees are pressuring the federal government to surrender a national wildlife refuge to the state.
The land is called the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. It is a glorious wetland that is bordered on the east by encroaching suburbia in West Palm Beach and sugar farms to the north and west. To the south, downstream of the Loxahatchee: the dying Everglades. The Loxahatchee is famous for being the place where water quality standards for the Everglades were set by federal law in the 1990s, after a decade of litigation.
Gov. Scott is advancing the novel idea through his governing board of the state water management district that the feds are "violating" the terms of a 65 year old lease agreement that underlies the refuge lands.
Big Sugar, the biggest polluter of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge through nutrient-packed and chemical runoff from farm fields, is behind the move. Big Sugar despises federal laws and regulatory agencies that inhibit its profits.
Scott and his hand-picked governing board at the South Florida Water Management District are using an invasion of exotic plants as a pretext. Their purpose; to remove the Everglades and Everglades restoration from federal oversight. The Palm Beach Post put it bluntly:
... if the lease is terminated, so, too, will be the “federal interest” in the refuge’s water quality. A consent decree that settled a 1988 Everglades protection lawsuit would be moot as far as the refuge is concerned. That agreement established the only water-quality standards in Florida that cannot be changed solely by state action.
Let's be clear what this is really about.
The Civil War, slavery and its aftermath, was framed at the time as a battle for states' rights. Today, in an age of scarcity significantly defined by man-made damage to the environment, the GOP has found a pressure point -- environmental regulation -- that fits neatly into the attack on federalism.
Today in 24 states the GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and the executive branch. (In comparison, Democrats control just 6.) The judicial, executive, and legislative branches of the federal government are about to be controlled by the GOP.
The anti-environmental regulatory agenda is so much easier to prosecute when the outcome has already been decided and judged: the federal government should fail.
The state of Florida constantly criticizes the Department of Interior and other federal agencies for failing to do their job in Everglades restoration without adding that Republican legislators in Congress have constrained agency budgets so they can't do their jobs.
The state charges that the federal government has failed to protect the Loxahatchee from invasive plants. What is the state really doing? Using invasives to extract itself from the Consent Agreement governing the state's relationship with the federal government.
Big Sugar can't just appropriate national lands. They would if they could. Instead, Big Sugar is taking a slow, methodical approach; to unite with other opponents of national parks and federal lands and starve the budget of the Department of Interior and other federal agencies with environmental mandates.
This formula is a core objective of GOP campaign funders: target an agency, starve its budget, then rant about the inefficiency of the agency and persuade voters, "government doesn't work". On this magic carpet, Gov. Rick Scott hopes to defeat U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat, in 2018.
President-elect Donald Trump should balance the furious aim of partisan politics against the blood, sweat and sacrifice of past generations that created America's best idea: a national park system and federal lands protected by regulations based in sound science.
Americans should let their representatives in Congress and President-elect Trump know: our national parks and public lands are not for transfer and not for sale. They are national wildlife refuges and national parks, and belong to all the people of the United States not just cattle ranchers or Big Sugar oligarchs.
Any attempt to use the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge as a crowbar to decouple the American people from our shared heritage should be fiercely resisted.