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Ron DeSantis, Conservationist

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Ron DeSantis, Conservationist

The Florida governor advances a pragmatic, popular environmentalism. December 5, 2022
Politics and law
Infrastructure and energy

After Ron DeSantis’s smashing reelection victory in the Florida governor’s race, political analysts have debated whether he can beat Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. DeSantis’s hard-edged culture-warrior persona appeals to many core Republicans and could help him secure the nomination. But attaining the presidency itself will depend on winning over Republican moderates and independents, groups increasingly turned off by populist displays. To reach those voters, DeSantis will have to emphasize a very different set of attributes: his wonky competence as an administrator and his ability to rally bipartisan support for his policies.

One of DeSantis’s biggest strengths in this respect is his record on environmental issues. In recent decades, most Republicans haven’t focused much on environmental policy. Many explicitly reject the Left’s preferred solutions to climate change but don’t offer their own alternatives. DeSantis is in no danger of being mistaken for a progressive climate warrior. But his administration has devoted considerable resources—and spent political capital—pursuing innovative environmental stewardship.

DeSantis calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.” The term suggests a throwback to an earlier era of Republican environmentalism, with policies that emphasize habitat preservation and outdoor recreation. (TR was an indefatigable advocate for national parks and famous for his love of hunting and fishing.) As governor, DeSantis has backed programs to protect the state’s threatened wildlife and preserve wild spaces. In the process, he has challenged some of Florida’s strongest interest groups, including the state’s powerful sugar industry.

Florida is famous for its natural beauty: pristine beaches, coral reefs, and the unique “river-of-grass” Everglades ecosystem. But the state’s natural environments are under enormous stress. Its population has grown by almost 3 million since 2010, a nearly 16 percent increase. The resulting sprawl encroaches on sensitive habitats across the state. Fertilizer runoff from agriculture, golf courses, and suburban lawns pollute waterways, threatening fish, coral reefs, and the state’s beloved manatees. Burmese pythons and other invasive predators kill off native wildlife across south Florida. And rising sea levels increase salinity in estuaries and groundwater, while putting coastal homes at risk.

Unlike many left-leaning environmentalists, DeSantis isn’t opposed to growth. “We appreciate having you here,” he tells newcomers. Rather than trying to limit development across the board, his policies aim to help the state’s growing population coexist with protected habitats and wildlife. That’s a big challenge in a state where population centers approach fragile ecosystems like the Everglades. It’s not enough simply to identify a protected area and then let nature take its course. Many of the threats to wetlands, estuaries, and reefs come from other regions, particularly in the form of polluted water. Saving those habitats requires a coordinated statewide approach.

Though DeSantis is known as a small-government conservative, his environmental policies often involve the aggressive application of state power and financial resources. In part, this owes to the nature of the state’s environmental issues. Some of Florida’s worst ecological problems don’t stem only from runaway private enterprise or lack of regulation. Rather, they’ve resulted from wrongheaded state and federal programs that have actively reshaped large tracts of the state, mostly for the worse. For decades, U.S. agricultural policies have subsidized the development of huge sugar plantations that disrupt water flows and leak contaminants. Meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies carved up central and south Florida with ditches, dikes, and canals, wreaking hydrological havoc. Undoing the damage caused by these policies requires both bold environmental engineering and muscular pushback against the agricultural lobby.

“The story of the Everglades epitomizes government programs gone awry,” writes The Property and Environment Research Center, a pro-free-market environmental group. The state began paying developers to drain “swamped and submerged lands” in the 1850s. In the early twentieth century, the Army Corps of Engineers built an 85-mile dike along the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, blocking the flow of water into the Everglades. In mid-century, the federal government helped fund 1,700 miles of canals and levees designed to turn wetlands south of Okeechobee into agricultural land. Most of the newly created farmland was used for growing sugar, a crop that requires the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Few industries in U.S. history have managed to manipulate the levers of power as deftly as Florida’s sugar growers. The Fanjul dynasty, a family of rich Cuban refugees that came to control 40 percent of Florida’s sugar crop, is legendary for its lavish contributions to both political parties. According to some accounts, Bill Clinton once cut short a rendezvous with Monica Lewinsky to take a phone call from Alfonso Fanjul, Jr. Congress and the Department of Agriculture prop up a de facto cartel of sugar growers through an elaborate scheme of tariffs and import restrictions that force U.S. consumers to pay roughly twice the global price for sugar. Florida’s sugar barons “aren’t in the agricultural business,” an environmental lawyer once observed, but in “the corporate welfare business.”

For decades, the Corps of Engineers and other agencies managed South Florida’s waterways to benefit the sugar plantations. Excess water from the Okeechobee was prevented from flowing south across the sugar fields and instead diverted down rivers flowing to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Those surges of lake water carry heavy loads of fertilizer and sewage runoff, which spurs blooms of toxic blue-green algae in river estuaries and red tides along Florida’s beaches. The once-fecund Indian River Lagoon has turned into “a lunar landscape of nothing but death and sadness,” a fishing guide told MeatEater, the popular hunting and fishing website.

In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which called to reverse some of this damage. Over the years, the plan has evolved into a massive engineering project to create reservoirs and wetlands to hold and filter floodwater, to allow more clean water to flow into the Everglades, and to reduce the amount of polluted water routed toward coastal estuaries. Sugar growers have fought these changes every step of the way. And compliant Florida legislators and regulators often go along with their efforts to derail the Everglades rescue plan.

Even early in his political career, DeSantis showed a rare willingness to challenge agricultural political power. As a congressman, he voted for a farm-policy reform bill that would have rolled back some of the industry’s sweetest perks. (It failed.) In his first race for governor, DeSantis derided his primary opponent, the state’s agriculture commissioner, as an “errand boy for U.S. Sugar.” As governor, DeSantis delivered on his promises to improve water quality and protect wildlife. He created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force and helped push the panel’s recommendations—including reducing sewage discharges and excess fertilizer use—through the legislature. His administration roughly doubled the funding devoted to wetland-restoration projects, many of which had been languishing.

DeSantis also kept up his fight against the sugar lobby. Earlier this year, the Florida state senate tried to sneak through a budget bill that would have given sugar growers more power to meddle with water management plans. After protests from fishermen and environmentalists, the legislature stripped the most egregious elements out of the bill. DeSantis could have signed the watered-down measure without comment. Instead, he held a rowdy press conference at a Fort Meyers bar, where he announced that he would veto it. Captain Daniel Andrews, a fishing guide who helped lead opposition to the budget bill, said the veto sent a message: Anyone who stands in the way of cleaning up Florida’s waterways is “gonna get steamrolled by Gov. DeSantis.”

Last year, DeSantis signed what The New Yorker described as “a remarkable piece of environmental legislation that could become a model for the rest of the country.” The Florida Wildlife Corridor will connect the state’s major state and national parks with ribbons of undeveloped land stretching from the Alabama border to the Florida Keys. These greenways will help isolated pockets of threatened species—such as the endangered Florida panther—stay in contact with each other, helping stave off extinction. The measure could ultimately expand the amount of protected habitat in the state by 80 percent. It passed the Republican-controlled legislature unanimously.

The governor’s state-level environmental successes aren’t enough to convince green progressives, of course. Their biggest complaint is that he hasn’t prioritized climate change by adopting a California-style plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. He has failed “to use his bully pulpit to advocate for a clean-energy future,” writes Inside Climate News. While DeSantis acknowledges that human activity helps drive climate change, he has described it as a “global issue for national and international action, not a state issue.” Instead, his administration focuses on adapting to storms and rising sea levels at the local level. In his first term, he launched a $1 billion Resilient Florida program to help communities beef up defenses.

The governor has showed similar Florida-first pragmatism on other green issues. In the process, he often threads the needle between priorities of the Left and Right. For example, though DeSantis supported the Keystone XL Pipeline and other pro-fossil-fuel policies while in Congress, he opposes drilling off Florida’s shores. In the House of Representatives, DeSantis voted against renewable-energy subsidies. But as governor, he recently shocked renewable fans by killing a bill that would have raised taxes on rooftop solar power. “We are thrilled and encouraged and heartened and ecstatic,” a solar advocate told the left-leaning Free Press. When Florida won $166 million in settlement money from Volkswagen after that company’s diesel-emissions scandal, DeSantis invested it in electric buses and EV charging stations. At the same time, he signed a bill preventing local governments from forcing gas stations to install charging ports.

The governor’s environmental emphasis appears to be popular with voters. After narrowly winning his first race for governor, DeSantis quickly soared to a 59 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac poll. “Part of Gov. DeSantis’ success is his taking on issues such as the environment on which Republicans often don’t focus,” a Quinnipiac analyst said. “DeSantis’s pro-environmental record provides him a unique advantage,” Benji Backer, founder of the right-leaning advocacy group American Conservation Coalition (ACC), told me in an email exchange. “By focusing on tangible and real-life environmental issues, he has found a way to tie constituents back to the conservative heritage of conservation.”

This brand of results-oriented environmentalism probably won’t sway the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party, but conserving wild spaces and protecting wildlife has broad appeal in this country. Backer believes that environmental issues are especially salient with younger voters. The Republican Party’s failure to emphasize these concerns has been “a blatant reality harming Republican candidates for the past two decades,” he argues. “DeSantis has the opportunity to show America’s youth his incredible track record,” he says, “and how conservative environmental values actually work better than the alternatives.”

And we shouldn’t assume a pro-environment message resonates only with young voters or suburban moms. For a rally against the Florida senate measure undermining clean-water plans, over 100 fishing guides and other outdoorsmen rolled into Tallahassee. Wearing trucker hats and camo jackets, they parked their pickups and fishing skiffs in front of the Capitol. There weren’t a lot of Priuses or Biden/Harris bumper stickers visible in this crowd. It’s a good bet that there are tens of millions of voters like this across the U.S.— skeptical of progressive notions about how to save the climate, but passionate about the outdoors and wanting to see it protected.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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