Group proposes running Florida reefs for profit


A market-oriented conservation group suggestion to lease reefs to improve protection draw fire from diver groups, other critics

Palm Beach Post

Private companies and nonprofits could lease plots on Florida’s reefs and charge fees to dive boats, fishing charters and others to use them under a proposal raised for discussion by an environmental group of influential conservatives and libertarians.

The proposal, which also advocates opening the banned commercial trade of corals, is designed to encourage conservation and restoration of Florida’s coral reefs by creating a financial incentive to do so. The Conservation Leadership Council released the proposal and five other “actionable suggestions” at its inaugural conference in Washington this month.

“We believe many of the best solutions will be found in market-oriented policy,” council member Gale Norton, who was secretary of the interior during the George W. Bush administration, said at the opening of the conference. “The Conservation Leadership Council looks for fresh proposals that can reach environmental goals while finding mechanisms that conservatives and libertarians can embrace.”

However, some reef users are not embracing the idea.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Skip Commagere, owner of Force-E dive shops in Riviera Beach, Boca Raton and Pompano Beach. “I’m slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, but I’m at a loss for trying to figure out how this could benefit anyone.”

The council hopes to establish “the conservative voice for environmental stewardship” rooted in “fiscal responsibility, limited government and market entrepreneurship.” Norton, who was travelling after the conference, referred questions about the proposal to a spokesperson, who did not contact The Palm Beach Post.

Kameran Onley, a board member and director of U.S. Marine Policy for the Nature Conservancy, said in an email that “the ideas put forward in the publication are simply intended to stimulate discussion. They are not endorsed by the CLC and are not endorsed by The Nature Conservancy.”

According to the council’s press release about its conference earlier this month, the six policy studies commissioned by the council also address operating state parks through public-private partnerships that would allow private food concessions, retail, lodging and overall management of state parks. Another policy paper proposes creating a credit-trading system to protect threatened species.

The theory behind the reef proposal is that there is little public sector incentive to protect and restore the reefs because there is “no clear ownership… and no meaningful limit on access.”

Private companies and nonprofits would have a financial stake in the health of the reef — and therefore pay for preservation and restoration — if they could charge for access, the council policy paper contends. “Market-based strategies have the potential to generate stable and long-term funding… but only if the legal institutions governing coral reefs allow producers of reef restoration to charge the consumer of reef restoration.”

Lessees could also limit damage to the reef by excluding users who might damage it by dragging anchors or harvesting species living on the reef, it said. According to the policy paper: “Since no one owns the coral reefs off Florida’s coast, no one group has taken ownership of the problem of reef degradation… The issue is one of property rights.”

Not so, said Ed Tichenor, head of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue and long-time reef advocate. Privatizing the reefs would require a major overhaul of long-standing legal regulations and principals, such as the Public Trust Doctrine, which holds that publicly owned natural resources are important to everyone and therefore everyone should have access.

“The coral reefs in Florida are a natural resource,” Tichenor said. “You can’t assign ownership to a hotel or a cruise ship.”

Joe Browder, a longtime Everglades advocate and official in the Department of Interior during the Carter Administration, likens the reef privatization proposal to periodic efforts to allow developers to build resorts in the national parks. Browder, who also taught a course on private enterprise and the environment at Johns Hopkins University, called the idea “absurd” and proposed by “people on the fringes.”

“They have spent decades trying to persuade the world that public ownership of land is no good and if the land has any real value, somebody in the private market will manage it better,” Browder said.

Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said pay-to-play proposals and user fees are not new. What is often ignored is administering, managing and enforcing such ideas. Who and how would leases be auctioned, permits issued and territory rights be enforced?

“You want to float an idea like that, it’s going to require a lot of work and discussion,” Morton said. “I think it’s an interesting academic discussion but I cautioned them — come to a public meeting and see what kind of reaction you would get.”

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