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Development In Florida Panther Habitat Could Be Expedited By Presidential Executive Order

A close-up of a Florida panther between some vegetation.
Tim Donovan/FWC

An executive order signed by President Trump in June to accelerate the nation's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is helping developers sidestep key environmental laws in order to fast-track projects.

President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13927 in June, which, in part, seeks to bypass parts of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The order is meant to accelerate the nation's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity show that the Department of the Interior is using this executive order to consider sidestepping key environmental laws in order to fast-track a project in the heart of endangered Florida panther habitat called the Eastern Collier County Multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan.

Click here to view a letter from the Department of the Interior.

Major landowners in Collier got together about a decade ago to request a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a 195,000-acre planning area. It proposes that 45,000 acres be developed for residential, mining and other uses, and 107,000 acres be designated as preserve land, which would include agriculture, infrastructure, oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use and transportation development.

Click here to view a draft of the plan.

The Florida panther is one of the rarest species in North America, and is now just in 5% of its historic habitat, which is all concentrated in South Florida. Scientists say that the panther cannot afford to lose even a single additional acre.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke with Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Political Director for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.

What exactly is the Department of Interior considering expediting?

Specifically, it's the permit to take listed species. So it's this habitat conservation plan, which is what someone needs to seek to get an order to take a listed species. It's what allocates that authority. Otherwise, under the Endangered Species Act, everyone is prohibited from harming species and you need a take permit to harm them.

The applicants in this case have applied for that type of permit. Where the Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned and what it needs to analyze is whether in authorizing the take of these species, whether that's going to jeopardize the continued existence of the panther. Meaning, will it push it over the brink so that extinction is a certainty with the development that is proposed with this take permit? And the scientists who have looked at these issues, in terms of what the habitat needs of the panther are, it's difficult to reach any conclusion other than this project will jeopardize the Florida panther.

So the Department of Interior is considering sidestepping laws to fast-track this Collier development. Do you have any idea when we'll know officially what's going to happen?

No, I don't think that there's any official timeline that's been established in any of this paperwork that's been filed. I think one could speculate a bit based on past announcements that there might be some connection to the election and things that might happen in terms of currying political favor, but that's just pure speculation. And based on even Trump's recent visit to Jupiter and his proclamations of being "the greatest environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt.

How is the president's executive order impacting development, not just in Florida, but across the nation?

It's unclear right now how the executive order is affecting well — any of this suite of the executive orders because, of course, this latest one in June isn't the only one. It was preceded by several other executive orders that are intended to expedite projects. And in fact, brag that things like, an environmental impact statement— which is required under federal law for any project, a federal project that's going to impact the environment— it brags that impact statements now are taking place a quarter of the time and are a quarter of the length.

So in other words, that they're being pushed through more quickly with less analysis. And that's a bad thing for humans in the environment. We want to understand the effects of our actions before we take them. And so the concern with expediting these projects is that you're really rushing past the procedures that are intended to provide results.

The procedures aren't just a paperwork exercise. They are what allows the agency to pause and take into account and do an assessment of what the effects of these actions are going to be so that we're not irreversibly damaging the environment and its resources of which we know all too well they are limited. They're finite.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.