If at First You Don’t Succeed, Rig the System

May 19, 2022
6 mins read

How scorned developers rid the state of conservation efforts

Kale Boucher

Soil and Water Conservation Districts are the unsung environmental heroes within our communities. Made up of volunteers, they are the only natural resources boards with elected positions rather than members being appointed. New legislation will disempower Florida voters in these district elections, minimizing our power to decide for ourselves which community members are best suited to manage conservation concerns.

In Duval, our board is composed of soil scientists, teachers, farmers and engineers, among others. These district members take on a wide variety of roles. To fulfill their goal of inspiring a conservation ethic in the community, board members manage media, public speaking, administrative and organizational duties, all unpaid. They lead educational and mentorship programs, acquire grants for public projects and more. Come the next election, however, only one current member may be eligible to run again.

Due to Senate Bill 1078, which sits on Governor DeSantis’s desk, the future of Florida’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts is uncertain. Although the district members remain steadfast in their determination to serve our community, asserting their intent to continue their efforts with or without the ability to retain their positions, this legislation is detrimental to their ability to organize, educate and advocate for the public.

The History of Soil and Water Conservation Districts

Soil and Water Conservation districts were created in 1937 by federal law in response to the Dust Bowl. Its soil erosion and drought raised concerns regarding use and management of natural resources. So, the districts were installed as a preventative measure. Grassroots organizations, these districts are made up of five elected supervisors with the possibility of affiliate members. Without any taxation authority, these local volunteers act as a liaison between government expertise and the public. The purpose of Florida’s districts as outlined in Chapter 582 of the Florida Statutes is “to provide assistance, guidance, and education to landowners, land occupiers, the agricultural industry, and the general public in implementing land and water resource protection practices.”

Senate Bill 1078

In November of last year Travis Hutson, a member of the Florida Senate representing St. Johns, Flagler, and Volusia counties, introduced Senate Bill 1078. The bill has evolved many times since first being introduced.

The version of SB1078 first brought up by Hutson sought to abolish all of Florida’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, eliminating the one government entity whose sole purpose is to protect our natural resources. Later versions abandoned the attempt to dissolve all Florida’s districts. Instead, Hutson sought new restrictions regarding who can run for these positions.

Ultimately, in the bill passed by the Florida Senate and now awaiting approval by Governor Desantis, candidates running for one of the 5 seats within a Soil and Water Conservation District must meet be an eligible voter who resides in the district and is 1) actively engaged in or retired after 10 years of being engaged in agriculture (as defined in s. 570.02); 2) employed by an agricultural producer; and 3) owns, leases or is actively employed on land classified as agricultural (under s. 193.461).

Why Was the Bill Proposed?

A string of recent events is likely the motivation behind this legislation. Although Hutson denies any connection between these events and the bill, it’s difficult to ignore their relevance to the bill’s subject matter.

In Ponte Vedra, 100 acres of land referred to as the Outpost is situated at the end of Neck Road. Almost entirely surrounded by the Guana Wildlife Management Area, the Outpost has been designated “conservation” since 1990. In 2016, Ponte Vedra Corporation owned by Gate Petroleum and partnering with Dream Finders Homes pursued a rezoning of the Outpost. They submitted plans for a residential development of 77 homesites.

Save Guana Now, a not-for-profit organization, was founded by Ponte Vedra residents Nicole Crosby and Gary Coulliette with the goal of preventing development on the Outpost and preserving its conservation status. Through their fundraising and educational efforts, they garnered overwhelming opposition to rezoning plans with Gate Petroleum ultimately withdrawing their efforts.

In 2020 Crosby ran for the St. Johns Soil and Water Conservation District. She was rivaled by farmer John (Bucky) Sykes. Typically, the elections for these unpaid positions see little money. Sykes, however, had an unprecedented campaign fund of $43,000, in part backed by Gate Petroleum and The Hutson Companies (owned by Sen. Hutson’s family). Despite this backing, Crosby beat out Sykes by 11,000 votes, having only raised $3,000 to campaign in response to her opponent’s bolstered warchest.

One year later, Travis Hutson proposed Senate Bill 1078.

As of 2019, Hutson was a state senator and listed as vice president on The Hutson Companies website. While the website no longer reflects that title (or any title), Hutson is still listed as part of the team.

Now passed by the Florida Senate, SB1078 sits on the desk of Governor DeSantis, who has received donations from The Hutson Companies. Ironically enough, Sen. Travis Hutson cited Desantis’ “protection of the environment” as one of the reasons he supports the governor in a statement to the Times/Herald.

Discriminatory Implications

SB1078 attacks the diversity and integrity of our Conservation Districts in its approach to establish boards composed exclusively of farmers. While the bill explicitly reduces diversity in expertise, the new requirements will have underlying effects in terms of racial, gender and class diversity as well. As I sat in a public meeting with Duval’s Soil and Water Conservation District to discuss the legislation, I was struck by how accurately the group represented Duval. The room was indicative of our community at large: diverse in age, race, gender and profession.

According to the USDA, 96% of agricultural landowners are white and only 1.3% of farmers are Black. This disparity is due to a long history of racist economic and land ownership practices (see Pigford vs. Glickman). In making farmers the only group that qualifies, the bill essentially bans most people of color from participating in an agency created to preserve water and soil quality—at a time where people of color are disproportionately affected by such quality issues.

SB1078’s Impact on Duval

Ashantae Green of Duval’s Soil and Water Conservation District (and a farmer herself) argues “we’re all farmers.” We grow humans. We grow relationships. We grow community. At the heart of conservation is the understanding of connection and the recognition that everything we do has a broader impact. While we often see ourselves as separate from our natural resources, their purpose is to instill actionable respect for our interdependence.

Duval Soil and Water is unanimous in its opposition to SB1078. District members feel the move is being made in an appeal to developers and big agriculture. They are not anti-development and not anti-farming. The overwhelming narrative is often conservation efforts poised against economic interests. Conservation issues, in reality, are short-term economics vs. long-term economics. Money for developers now—expensive cleanup, cost to locals and decreased tourism—follow later. Members wish only to apply their diverse expertise to advocate for mindful development that does not cost us the integrity of our soil and water.

With only 366 farmers in Duval County, the board is concerned about the transfer of knowledge, fulfillment of grants and completion of projects in the aftermath of SB1078. Farmers are, after all, one of the district’s target audiences.

While the board devotes time and energy to providing resources to the agriculture sector, they worry efforts in other areas will be lost when farmers are the only citizens permitted to occupy their seats. According to affiliate member Tiffany Bess, “We have a document we do every year where we identify our priorities. And so many of those extend far past agriculture and farming.”

Joshua Rosenberg, another affiliate member, echoed this concern. “I also think it’s going to change the breadth of … what the board does.” He explained, “We have some people that have farm experience, and some people have composting experience and green engineering and permaculture. And then what the agricultural people are gonna have, they’re gonna know, cattle. They’re gonna know tree farming. They’re gonna know horses. They’re just gonna know these niches. And if they have the time to come and put their time here on the board, they’re probably just going to try and keep to the things and what areas that they know, right? And not really [explore], how do we get more food security? How do we bring urban farms into the city?”

In districts elsewhere, these concerns are already playing out. Some Soil and Water Conservation Districts face difficulties as farmers on their boards hoard resources. Even well intentioned farmers may lack the time or prior experience to see out projects like the Regeneration Park or to manage the $65,000 in grants and contributions our current board was able to acquire.

Chairman Jennifer Casey recalled: “The thing that I am most proud of is that one day we were out spreading mulch [at Regeneration Park]. And this gentleman was walking along the S-line. And he stopped, he walked over, just picked up a shovel and started moving mulch. And we [asked], what caused you to stop what you’re doing and join us today? And he said, ‘Right over there, my son was shot and killed on that corner, and I want to do something good where something terrible happened.’ We are not only healing the land with projects like this, but we’re healing a community.”

The current Duval Soil and Water Conservation District is a love letter to the community. A reprieve from the bureaucracy and private interests of our current political climate, these boards function as the government should. They are a diverse collection of people unified by a common belief: that everyone, land users and owners, “deserve clean soil and water and access to food.” At a time when our collective future may seem bleak, the interruption of their functioning is an overwhelming loss. The question now: what will we do with our grief?

To learn more about the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District and the work they do check out their website duvalsoilandwater.com.

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