Jeff VanderMeer & Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried Talk Environment

December 18, 2021

 Florida’s Top Elected Democrat and Environmental Regulator, Nikki Fried,  Talks with OT Editor and Florida novelist Jeff VanderMeer on the environmental issues guiding Fried’s campaign for Governor. Fried’s interview is the most in-depth interview that any candidate has done on environmental issues so far in the 2022 Race for Governor.

The 2022 Florida gubernatorial race is shaping up to be a referendum on many issues important to Floridians. Among of those issues will be proper stewardship of our environment, for quality of life, responsible growth, and preservation of the state’s unique natural resources. Under current Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, reckless development and suspect, dark-money-infused decisions continue the trend started by former Governor Rick Scott of either sweeping issues under the carpet or letting special interests rule the roost.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried is, as Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner, the top elected official presiding over a variety of areas with real environmental impact. Faced with multiple environmental emergencies, some due to climate change but many due to exceedingly poor state management, it’s important that Floridians know where the candidates stand on issues that will determine Florida’s ecological future. Best practices and decision-making meant to benefit all Floridians in this area will have profound beneficial effects on quality of life for people who live here and people who move here in the future.

I was pleased to be able to ask Fried about her positions on several specific environmental issues…

VANDERMEER: When you become governor, what will your top three environmental issues be?

FRIED: Climate Resiliency, Energy, and Water. 

Florida is home to 1,350 miles of coastline, the second-most in the United States. The state’s waters include more than 7,500 lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, more than 12,000 miles of rivers, streams, and canals, natural aquifers that supply eight-billion gallons of water daily, more than 700 freshwater springs, and the world-renowned Florida Everglades, a unique wetlands ecosystem found nowhere else on Earth, spanning 7,800 square miles. Challenges to Florida’s waters include risks from offshore oil drilling, nutrient pollution from industries, and the need for greater water conservation with a rapidly growing population and pressures from climate change.

As Commissioner, I identified protecting Florida’s invaluable waters as a key priority for the department upon entering office. The department’s Office of Agricultural Water Policy (OAWP) was tasked with updating all of its existing programs to better achieve environmental benefits while maintaining high levels of agricultural production. From updating Best Management Practices manuals to emphasize water conservation, to prioritizing cost share funding to target high-value projects and sensitive geographic areas, to providing greater public transparency in our water data, we have seen significant progress in achieving conservation goals as they have been implemented.

Recognizing the climate crisis as an existential threat, I also refocused the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Energy to address the link between energy and our climate crisis, helping to propose the most ambitious energy and climate legislation that Florida has seen in a decade. Florida uses more residential energy than any other state except Texas, with residential energy expenses 40 percent higher than the U.S. average. Ninety percent of this household energy comes from electricity, with 72 percent of that electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, including 1,400 trillion BTUs of natural gas last year. Currently, renewable energy accounts for just two percent of Florida’s energy, with solar energy just one percent – compared to 19 percent in California and 11 percent in Massachusetts.

Commissioner Fried meets with Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins in Palmetto Bay | April 2021

VANDERMEER: How would you strengthen regulation to help the quality of life in Florida?

FRIED: On Jan 19, 2021, a federal appellate court ruled unanimously against a Trump administration rollback of climate change rules, constraining regulations on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The court instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the incoming Biden Administration to rewrite rules aimed at reducing power plant greenhouse gas emissions, which were weakened by Trump’s repeal of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.

I, as an independently-elected member of the Florida Cabinet and member of the Florida Power Plant Siting Board, offered the following statement:

“For four years, the Trump Administration has pursued a deregulation spree that has damaged our environment, worsened climate change, and risked public health – and on the President’s last day in office, that anti-environment binge has finally ended. Our climate is interconnected, and no state is more vulnerable to climate change than Florida. Our approaches to addressing the climate crisis must also be interconnected, including greenhouse gases from power plants. I thank the federal court for ruling that climate pollution from power plants can be appropriately limited while encouraging American energy independence.”

The Trump Administration’s rollback will cause the U.S. to emit an additional 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases between 2020 and 2035. Nearly 85 percent of Florida’s electricity is generated by fossil fuel power plants.

Under Florida law, the Power Plant Siting Board, composed of the Florida Cabinet members, approves the certification and licensing of large power plants, to include location, gas pipelines and coal rail lines, electric transmission lines, and other considerations. [My] Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the state’s Office of Energy.

VANDERMEER: Do you think the governor’s office should address deforestation with better protections for urban canopies?

FRIED: Yes absolutely, Florida faces growing risks from climate change in the coming decades, including $75 billion in sea level rise costs and a heat index over 100 degrees for half the year. This is partly attributed to Florida’s 231 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, third-most in the nation. Forests are a widely-recognized tool for carbon sequestration; Florida’s forests currently sequester 45.3 million tons of carbon dioxide in aboveground and belowground forest biomass. I advocated to the Biden Administration for carbon sequestration incentives in the FDACS State-Federal Partnership Plan released earlier this year; the President and the USDA have publicly supported carbon sequestration incentives to landowners. We must be just as aggressive to maximise utilization of urban canopies.

Commissioner Fried viewing Piney Point with Manatee County emergency management officials | April 2021

VANDERMEER: How can useful development for Florida’s growing population occur without destroying the natural treasures people come here for?

FRIED: There are so many great options that are not only green, but more affordable for Florida residents…. Florida can and should be at the forefront of smart and affordable homebuilding. There must also be a greater emphasis on solar infrastructure on front end development and new builds. It should not be an aftermarket only option. 

VANDERMEER: Will you support appropriate legislation or executive orders to protect our springs from bottled water companies?

FRIED: Yes. As you can see here, I am very clear on my position on this issue. I encourage you to judge me by my actions, and not just by what I say here.

VANDERMEER: The wetlands mitigation program used by developers clearly isn’t working. What should replace it?

FRIED: I am a supporter of responsible development, but we all have weekly PTSD from bad deals being pushed through boards and committees at every level of government. If it’s not wetlands, then it’s endangered species, or protected lands, at some point, we have to say enough is enough. Florida’s natural environment and vast [amount of] wildlife are such a huge part of what makes us so unique. After three years on the Florida Cabinet, voting no to so many bad deals, I think that we need leadership at the top [that] can fight to hold developers and harmful permitting accountable. Setting up another trust or fees may look good on paper, but when the time comes, those in charge will likely find ways to circumvent the safeties that were put in place to stop them in the first place. 

VANDERMEER: Do you favor actual sea walls to protect against sea-level rise or restoration of mangroves and other habitats that can serve the same purpose?

FRIED: When it comes to more complex issues [on which] I may not be as well versed, I would lean on subject matter experts. However, to me, on a basic level, it would make sense to try to maximize nature’s natural remedies, like mangroves. While there may need to be some immediate remedies to secure current coastal communities’ safety, we would need to move quickly to adequately fund and expand on the available natural remedies as our seas and tides are already rising at an alarming rate. 

Fried visits with Mexico Beach residents | February 2021

VANDERMEER: Over a thousand manatees have starved to death in Florida this year due to the pollution of our waterways. What will you do to protect one of Florida’s most iconic wild symbols?

FRIED: On October 4th, I , as an independently-elected member of the Florida Cabinet, formally requested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) work expeditiously to reclassify the West Indian manatee as an endangered species.

FWS was conducting its five-year status review of the manatee’s classification, following its downlisting from “endangered” to “threatened” status in 2017. Florida has reported record high manatee deaths in 2021, with the total number of losses in 2020 surpassed within the first four months of this year. FWS reported 23 extinctions, highlighting the urgency of action to protect manatees and other endangered species from a similar fate.

My letter can be viewed here and reads as follows:

Dear Principal Deputy Director Williams:

As Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services and an independently elected member of the Florida Cabinet, I write to you today regarding the alarming die off of the West Indian manatee, which are native to our state, and to strongly encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to take action expeditiously to reclassify these marine mammals as endangered species given the urgency that this situation demands.

As you’re aware, in March 2017, FWS downgraded the status of the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This action was taken despite the presence of scientific evidence that showed that the downlisting was not warranted, and widespread objections from wildlife and environmental organizations along with Florida’s bipartisan Congressional delegation.

Prior to this misguided decision, the manatee had been listed as endangered since 1967 due to risks posed from the degradation of its habitat, the growing impact of climate change, pollution, speeding boats, seagrass loss, and declining water quality – all of which still pose serious threats to their survival. These continued risks have unfortunately been realized, particularly as it pertains to seagrass loss and declining water quality, which have been widely attributed to the record number of manatee deaths being reported in Florida. According to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there have been 957 manatee deaths so far this year. This is more than double the amount of annual deaths that happened prior to the delisting decision. Even more alarming is that by FWS’ own estimates there are only around 6,500 West Indian manatees remaining in the southeastern United States.

While we appreciate the current protections afforded the manatee and the FWS’ ongoing 5-year mandatory of the manatee’s status, the troubling report last week from FWS that more than 20 species should be declared extinct is a sad reminder of the consequences of inaction and delayed action. There are few things more quintessentially Florida than the manatee, which is why it is absolutely vital that every step to protect these treasured creatures is taken immediately, restoring its status as an endangered species. “

Commissioner Fried views algae bloom | September 2018

VANDERMEER: Can you commit to a ban on oil drilling in Florida? Not just offshore, but including in the Everglades and in the Apalachicola River Basin? (Exploratory wells have been permitted by FDEP under DeSantis)

FRIED: Yes. I have been a leading advocate for protecting Florida’s waters, wetlands, and environment. Earlier this year, I opposed a Texas-based company’s oil drilling permit in the Big Cypress National Preserve. In February of last year, I released a state-federal partnership plan in which I called for a permanent ban on drilling off Florida’s coasts and called for a transition to clean energy. I have also been outspoken in my opposition to the state authorizing any new permits or expansions of phosphogypsum stacks in the state.

Last November, I submitted testimony to the EPA opposing the yielding of wetlands permitting to the State of Florida, after expressing opposition in October of 2020. Last December, I wrote to then-incoming EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking him to reconsider the prior Administration’s decision and asked the Biden Administration to reevaluate the EPA decision in the FDACS state-federal partnership plan released this February. My opposition was lauded by Sierra Club Florida, as I joined thousands of public comments opposing the EPA’s surrendering wetlands permitting authority.

VANDERMEER: Although the original Toll Roads to Nowhere plan was scrapped by the legislature, elements of it remain, including co-opting and expanding roads through sensitive habitat that often run at only 15 percent of capacity. Will you pledge to end this idea entirely?

FRIED: Yes. On Nov 13, 2020, three M-CORES Task Forces submitted their final reports to the Governor on the development of a new 330-mile toll road system in Florida.

The task forces did not conclude “that there is a specific need” for these new potential corridors, and the project been called “flawed,” “a callous preference for special interests,” which “falls short of the mandate … to protect the environment and revitalize rural communities” and faces “overwhelming opposition” from Florida residents.

I, as an independently-elected member of the Florida Cabinet, and my three appointees to the M-CORES Task Forces, offered the following comments on the project.

[My statement]: “While I recognize the importance of long-range planning for future population growth and the need for economic development, I am troubled by M-CORES’ overwhelming lack of support, lack of demonstrated need, and the millions in general revenue diverted from a state budget facing economic shortfalls reminiscent of the Great Recession. As Florida deals with billions in projected revenue losses due to COVID-19, this project would put an unnecessary strain on the state’s ability to fund urgent priorities.

Just as compelling are the effects these unnecessary toll roads will have on Florida’s environment and agricultural lands, with the potential to destroy millions of acres of farmland, state forests, and wetlands in their paths. This project threatens the unique character of our state’s rural lands and last undeveloped landscapes. I urge Secretary Thibault and the Governor to listen to over 10,000 Florida residents who have voiced their opposition to M-CORES and utilize the ‘no build’ option. We cannot afford to divert money into more toll roads while millions of Floridians continue to suffer.”

Mayor Matt Surrency, City of Hawthorne (Turnpike Task Force): “While the mission of the M-CORES task forces was to determine if a need exists based on hurricane evacuation, economic opportunity, environmental revitalization, and using the right of way to connect communities with infrastructure, I believe very few of these issues would be addressed to the scale that would make a significant difference for the study area. The infrastructure promises in this project are not guarantees for the communities within the corridor, with FDOT only committing to provide right of way access for connectivity.

Funding would be better spent building and upgrading schools that can be utilized as hurricane shelters, creating additional economic development in rural communities, small businesses, and the rural workforce, and improving access to rural broadband, which provides for economic opportunity and upward mobility. While some areas could see environmental restoration, none were specifically identified. Florida should seek to maximize our current corridors and redesign them with innovative, environmentally responsible approaches.”

Former Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, City of Gainesville (Suncoast Task Force): “Ultimately, I don’t think the case has been made that M-CORES and this new section of Turnpike is needed, and it has many negative potential impacts to a part of our state that is truly special. While these communities do need access to broadband, economic development, water and wastewater infrastructure, springs protection, trails, and many of the other promised benefits, a toll road is not a direct route to achieving these goals. While some existing roads along the proposed route may need improvement, based on my 12 years on our local Transportation Planning Organization, I believe the M-CORES toll road proposal has bypassed the tried-and-true process of roadway conception, in which the need is justified on the basis of traffic demand. This project may have been a priority of the Senate President and the House Speaker, but to the Legislature’s credit, they had the public policy interest to impanel three diverse task forces to study these 330 miles of new proposed toll roads.

I hope those in this process will have the willingness to listen to the articulated concerns, aspirations and values that were expressed. I do applaud the professionalism and dedication of the FDOT personnel on this project, and I thank Commissioner Fried for appointing me to this task force.”

Former Commissioner Janet Taylor, Hendry County Commission (Southwest-Central Task Force): “From where I sit in rural Hendry County, I cannot see any appreciable benefit to our community from the M-CORES project. Our region is home to hundreds of thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive agricultural lands which could be threatened by the development of new toll roads. The people of our communities, particularly people of color, are in need of investment and economic development that I believe the proposed corridors simply won’t deliver. At a time in which Floridians, especially those in rural communities like ours, are facing long-term economic and health hardships from a raging pandemic, I don’t believe that spending millions of dollars on pay-to-play roads to nowhere is the right priority at all. That was my message on the task force, and that’s my message to the Department of Transportation and the Governor.”

Commissioner Fried works with Rep. Allison Tant and Public Defender Jessica Yeary in Leon County at Second Harvest | December 2020

VANDERMEER: Do you have a plan for making eco-tourism more of an economic driver for Florida?

Yes. Florida is home to National Parks, State Parks, State Forests, and so much more.  However, most visitors, and even many of our own residents aren’t aware of the eco-tourism options that we offer. Currently Visit Florida does offer some information for those seeking it out, but we must start to market ourselves and our sanctuaries as competitive options just as many other states are currently doing. I feel as though we can make responsible investments to improve existing infrastructure without impacting current wildlife habitats or current users’ positive experiences.

Nikki Fried appears at the North Florida Democratic Club | Fall 2021


VANDERMEER: What’s the most valuable contribution your average citizen can make to helping restore the quality of our environment in Florida?

FRIED: When it comes to consumers, or the average citizen, I would say that the most valuable contribution they could make, to best restore the quality of Florida’s environment, would be to make educated and purposeful purchasing decisions. Whether it’s a bottle of water, or a quick meal, every simple decision to reward or not reward a corporation’s actions matters. In order to hold corporations accountable, we must start making educated decisions and reward good actors, while holding irresponsible actors accountable. Second, I would encourage them to vote. Vote for elected officials that aren’t afraid to reset the scale and upset the traditional apple cart. It’s past time for real change.

Nikki Fried is the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, elected in 2018. She is running for Governor of Florida.

Altered manatee photo by David Hinkel, used per creative commons. Photocollage by Jeremy Zerfoss.

No Ads. No Paywalls. No Limits, with your help. 

We count on our readers generous support to deliver the news you count on. Can we count on your support to make a contribution of $15, $35 or $100 today?

2 Responses

  1. This article will influence me greatly when I vote for governor in November, 2022. I especially appreciate Commissioner Nikki Fried’s statement, “I encourage you to judge me by my actions, and not just by what I say here.” We citizens depend on honest and in-depth journalism that follows candidates’ positions and promises fulfilled once elected.

  2. Dear Commissioner Fried. Please make no build a campaign issue. We in Levy county are fighting for our beautiful, peaceful existence. Our farms along the toll road route are not for sale. If you oppose this you will have my vote for Governor and I will work to share your opposition to the toll road.
    Lucille Snook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Our Tallahassee.

Read Today's Latest Breaking North Florida news, including Tallahassee government and politics

Our SMS texting service is a free of charge. We send subscribers 3-6 text messages per month, sharing with our network breaking local news before it goes on social media and on our site.