“This wasn’t seen as environmentalism; it was patriotism. The necessity of being frugal with resources and avoiding waste made a deep impression …”
From his office on the 39th floor of the Regents Bank Building in downtown Tampa, former Tampa Mayor and Florida Governor Bob Martinez can see the shimmering results of his leadership.
A vibrant Tampa Bay, a cleaner Hillsborough River and a preserved Picnic Island are just a few of his accomplishments readily visible out his window at the Holland & Knight law firm, where he is a senior policy adviser.
Indeed, Martinez’s environmental legacy, as mayor and especially governor, is profound. Likewise, this legacy is a good reason why a Department of Environmental Protection building in Tallahassee is named the Bob Martinez Center.
Yet Martinez is a Republican who brought fiscal discipline and conservative values to government. His insightful approach to conservation contrasts sharply to today’s Tallahassee, where so many elected officials seem indifferent to Florida’s natural wonders.
For Martinez, conservation was simply a matter of acting responsibly, as he had been taught to do all his life. As he recounted during a recent interview, he grew up in a West Tampa that was rural and his family had “gardens, cows and chickens” and grew hay. He vividly recalls the recycling efforts during his World War II childhood. Every week, students would bring to school “tin fold, rubber bands” and any materials that could be reused. This wasn’t seen as environmentalism; it was patriotism. The necessity of being frugal with resources and avoiding waste made a deep impression.
He also grew up relishing Florida’s waters. He could walk to the Hillsborough River. “From my home to the river was like a jungle.” His family would fish and crab throughout Tampa Bay. Indeed, he sometimes took his future wife, Mary Jane, crabbing on dates, the first of which was to Clearwater Beach. “When the moon was right,” he could walk through the water dragging “a tub and you could just scoop up” softshell crabs in a net. He also would use chicken necks tied to a string to pull the crabs into the nets.
So Martinez brought a deep, but unsentimental, regard for wild Florida to government. A longtime supporter of The Florida Aquarium, he also worked successfully as a teacher, union executive and restaurant owner before being elected mayor in 1979.
His priority, as it was throughout his public career, was government efficiency, but stewardship was a key part of that effort. Thus, he oversaw the development of a city plant that would burn refuse to produce energy. Similarly, he directed that the methane produced at the city’s wastewater plant be recycled into energy. He continued the campaign begun by his predecessor, Bill Poe, to give city wastewater the most advanced treatment possible before it was released into Tampa Bay. He preserved unused waterfront land as Picnic Island Park.
He made sure blockades were erected at city parks to stop people from driving into the parks to wash their cars, change oil and such — a common practice Martinez found a threat to children and the land.
In 1987, he became Florida’s first Hispanic governor and only the second Republican governor in modern times. His administration established the Republican structure that would help the party become predominate in the coming years. In the next four years he also would compile an environmental record that few leaders can rival.
Probably his most historic achievement was the creation of Preservation 2000, a land-buying program that would eventually become Florida Forever. It uses a portion of the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to buy ecologically valuable land. It originated in Martinez’s love of nature as well as his concern for landowners.
“There was this constant battle between landowners and conservationists, Martinez said. “Protecting the land would result in landowners being denied use of their land … like a reverse condemnation. So, I thought if the land was really sensitive, we should be buy it … not only because we need it to protect our water sources and wildlife but also to be able to be fair to landowners.”
The visionary program has preserved more than 2.5 million acres of Florida wilderness – from pristine coasts to Central Florida woodlands. And it has been popular with voters. In 2014, Floridians overwhelmingly adopted Amendment One, which required lawmakers to restore conservation spending, which recent Legislatures had cut dramatically, to traditional levels. Sadly, lawmakers have ignored the voters’ will and used the mandated allocation for salaries and other non-conservation purposes.
Many lawmakers now are adverse to bonding to raise money for land acquisition. They would be wise to listen to Martinez, who bonded the doc stamp revenues to allow the state to buy land quickly, before it could be developed.
“It’s true with pay-as-you-go, you are not paying interest,” he said. “But then you end up paying higher prices. And with pay as you go, only the people who are here now pay for the land, rather than the people who are going to come in the future and who will get to use that land. I didn’t think that was fair.”
Another Martinez milestone was the adoption of the Surface Water Improvement Management Act (SWIM), aimed at cleaning Florida’s rivers, lakes and estuaries. Here again, Martinez’s conservative philosophy was apparent along with his environmental commitment.
Lawmakers wanted to create a new department to administer the program, but Martinez could see this ballooning into an inefficient bureaucracy. He held firm that SWIM should be administered by the state’s five water districts.
Martinez had served on the Southwest Florida Water Management District before running for office and knew it had the scientific and regulatory resources to administer SWIM. He also insisted SWIM address key estuaries, including Tampa Bay. Legislators had wanted the program to tend only fresh water bodies. Martinez prevailed and SWIM, especially in its early years, was a tremendous success, helping revive Tampa Bay and improve the Hillsborough River.
There were numerous other actions to benefit natural Florida. For instance, he successfully implemented a statewide solid waste law. Open dumping was common in rural counties, most of which refused to adopt ordinances against the practice. They fought Martinez, but he held firm, understanding the dumping of tires, batteries and other waste in open areas was a threat to groundwater that would only become costlier to address.
He championed growth guidelines to ensure that new development didn’t ruin resources or overwhelm public services. Tallahassee in recent years has essentially abandoned such growth management. Also, he expanded manatee zones and adopted prohibitions against taking dolphins from state waters. He added officers to a badly understaffed Marine Patrol. All this was rooted in a childhood that taught him to appreciate nature and see conservation as a personal responsibility.
And his tenure as mayor further shaped his environmental commitment. He explains: “So much of much you do as a mayor is about cleaning things up. You have garbage you have to clean up; litter you have to clean up; storm water you have to clean up; drinking water. You have one hell of an environmental agenda just to make cities livable.” Martinez believes ignoring such responsibilities is neither conservative nor frugal. “If you allow those problems to spread, the cost of dealing with them later is horrendous.”