Lying About Lake O to Win Hearts and Minds: The Eric Draper Story

 By: Anthony Williams
Either Eric Draper doesn't know a snail kite from a Canada goose, or he's lying through his teeth.

My money is on the latter. I can see his nose growing from here.

Draper is the executive director of Florida Audubon Society. Surely the man knows a thing or two about endangered creatures in Florida.

So, you have to ask yourself, why would he write a four-page, full-of-baloney letter to the South Florida Water Management District, blaming them for mismanaging Lake Okeechobee water releases in the drought where "the water body experienced significant harm, including … loss of apple snail habitat and failure of Everglade Snail Kite nests"?

Draper goes on at length: "… six of the remaining nine endangered Everglade Snail Kite nests on Lake Okeechobee … failed, apparently resulting from parental abandonment related to low water levels and lack of available food. The loss reflected deteriorating habitat conditions in the Lake that continue to threaten the survival of newly-fledged young and adults."

Birders must have gone nuts hearing this sky-is-falling hooey.

Oh, my God, they're killing the kites!

Think about it. Literally thousands of Floridians are engaged in some kind of volunteer effort to protect the vanishing habitat of native creatures in this state. And here comes Eric Draper, with environmental credentials up the wazoo, telling them that another species is going under because -- to hear Draper tell it -- chronic screw-up SFWMD is playing favorites and evil Big Sugar is greedily sucking up Lake O.

Very little in this letter is true, no matter what light you hold it under.

It's super-hype. It's a blueprint to what is, frankly, a sinister agenda.

About the kites: If six snail kite nests were abandoned -- and let's say they were -- many more Draper failed to mention were productive and thriving.

Don Fox of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told me Friday that in spite of the drought, successful kite nests on the lake are up -- yes, up -- 35% this year. Fox, by the way, is The Man on the lake and in the tall grass. He's a biological administrator for FWC's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. It's his job to manage the habitats supported by Lake Okeechobee.

"We had 41 snail kite nests on the lake this year," Fox said, "which is a huge improvement over last year and over 2007 and 2008 when we were down to nests in the single digits. It means our numbers are back to normal in spite of the drought. It's nothing like in the 1980s when there were hundreds of kites over the lake, but I'm encouraged."

Fox said the importation and embedding of apple snails deep underwater in the Okeechobee muck have begun to pay off. "We brought in food, got it started and it sure worked well. This year the snail kites have had plenty of food.

"The kites are out there on the lake now, they haven't left. That's how we know they're getting the food they need," he said.

So much for Draper sounding the snail kite alarm.

By the way, SFWMD hasn't called the shots on lake releases for nearly three years. That's the job of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to page 72 of the Environmental Impact Statement. While I've been the first to criticize the district for wasteful spending and questionable management practices, the Gun Club Road folks are very much the innocent party here. If, as Draper says, the Water Management District is in violation of the Minimum Flows and Levels Rule -- if it's been dishing water unfairly to parties it shouldn't, why didn't he direct his letter to the Army Corps?

I'll tell you why.

He clearly wants Florida agriculture uninvited to the lake-users' party. He wants them starved of water. He wants their land.

Charlie Crist's U.S. Sugar Corp. deal was a bust. It was perceived as a giant boondoggle up and down Florida. In fact, it did more harm than good for the Everglades. Now there's neither the money nor the will in Tallahassee or Washington to buy more land for Everglades restoration. What's the next best thing for Draper, the Everglades Foundation and determined environmentalists in a dozen different well-funded groups? Try to get a grass-roots, anti-ag campaign going. Upset the public with bogus "facts" about an endangered, victimized wetlands-dependent bird of prey and you're on your way. It's like lobbing tear gas into a closed room.

But Draper and his friends should know they're on a loser. I wanted to tell him personally, but I was unable to reach him late last week.

The land farmed in South Florida is some of the richest, most productive in the world. It's no exaggeration to say that without Florida agriculture, this country would be importing food from foreign nations.

Agriculture in Florida supports 766,000 jobs, generates $100 billion in annual economic impact and is responsible for $3 billion in tax revenue for local, county, and state governments.

Those crops Draper wants to see choked of water? They make Florida first in the nation in citrus, sugar cane, sweet corn, and winter leaf crops east of the Mississippi. We're known as the Winter Salad Bowl -- no one in the Northeast would have lettuce without Florida's production. Oh, yes, and Florida is second in virtually all other vegetables.

Agriculture is one of the few industries in the state ready to expand and hire. Said one Glades farmer last week at the 10-County Coalition meeting, "I want to open up more fields, I want to grow my business. The only thing stopping me is water."

Florida is a breadbasket for the nation. And when all is said and done, neither the Legislature nor Congress is ever likely to join Draper's grass-roots anti-ag movement.

Spokespersons from the Florida's Department of Agriculture confirm that farms have worked hard to take their losses and act responsibly during the 2011 drought. Please, no more false alarms.
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