November 16, 2011 By Sarah Rich
Not so long ago, building and land developers in Florida were allowed to pave over the burrows of a threatened native tortoise as long as they paid for a permit. The practice, derided by environmentalists and much of the scientific community, was called “entombment” or “pave and pay.”
The permits generated millions of dollars of revenue, but came at the expense of tens of thousands of gopher tortoises that were killed when their habitat was destroyed.
From that tragedy grew something more uplifting, but largely ignored: a new permitting system that not only protects the gopher tortoise, but also is used for various types of permits.
After entombment was banned, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received $550,000 from the state to develop a permitting system to ensure that gopher tortoises are safely relocated from construction sites. Released in 2009, the permitting system is also the commission’s first to generate multiple permits within a single system, said Kevin Patten, the commission’s CIO.
More than 20 of the commission’s other permits have been integrated into the system. Users don’t have to register more than once, he said.
The appropriated funds were originally designated for building only a gopher tortoise permitting system.
“I had a discussion with the division director and the agency head and said, ‘I, in good conscience, can’t build another siloed permitting application,’” Patten said. “‘What we can do is build a permit generating application.’”
The commission has more than 200 permits that users can register for. In the past, each were siloed applications. Patten said when users have to apply for multiple permits, addresses and other necessary information can change over time and may not be updated on each permit the user has applied for.
Patten said the newer permitting process — developed through a partnership between the commission and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based AAJ Technologies — was built to accommodate the new guidelines for protecting the tortoises in Florida.
“In the past you could purchase a permit, you could assess the value of the gopher tortoise, and basically pay whatever the assessed value of the tortoises was and not be required to move them off the property before you started construction,” Patten said.
This resulted in “entombment,” which was basically a euphemism for allowing developers to bulldoze and build over the tortoise burrows if the developers obtained an “incidental take” permit.
Since 1991, nearly 94,000 gopher tortoises were casualties of the entombment practice, according to a 2007 report from the Humane Society. The 16-year policy was later banned in 2007.
But now, Patten said the permitting system can help developers find landowners who are willing to put the tortoises on their property. Through the system, information about land owners’ property is assessed to determine how many gopher tortoises can live on the property, he said. A map on the permitting system plots where the tortoises are being moved to and where they’re currently located.
A credit system was also set up so developers can pay the land owners to take the tortoises, Patten said.
The newer permitting system not only benefits the gopher tortoises, Patten said, but also the commission and each stage of the permitting process.
“There is much less manpower and time it takes us, from a turnaround perspective, to issue these permits,” Patten said.
Photo: A baby gopher tortoise. Photo by Randy Browning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr Creative Commons. The gopher tortoise is found in southern states. On average, the tortoises grow to be less than a foot in length, can weigh up to 30 pounds and can live to be 100 years old. The gopher tortoise is one of few tortoises that makes a burrow, digging anywhere between three and 20 feet deep underground.
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