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Environmental conference focuses on leadership and local impact

by Troy Hillier
Law Student Writer/ 2L

piecThe idea of environmental protection often conjures up thoughts of faraway places, most of which we’ve never seen. Whether it’s ice caps, rainforests, or the middle of the ocean, we don’t think of the issue as being close by or tangible. Even the Everglades are hundreds of miles away. But there is much to be done for the environment, and much happening, in our own neighborhoods. This created the focus of the 16th annual Public Interest Environmental Conference, titled "Bringing It All Back Home: Leadership, Land Use, and Locanomics."

The conference, held Feb. 25-27, kicked off with an opening speech by Julian Juergensmeyer, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law, and professor emeritus at UF.

On Friday, several conferences were held, each covering a different subject, and each chaired with a panel of noted experts from around the country. Each panel not only discussed current challenges, but also ways to address them.

Critics of environmental advocates sometimes argue that these attempted solutions are impractical, but conference co-chair Zach Broome said that special attention was paid to ensure that these were realistic measures that were being discussed. "This year, especially, we wanted to go with very practical solutions," Broome said. "While some of the ideas may be a little novel or unusual, they’re definitely not merely idealistic."

By Saturday, conference-goers had been privy to a wealth of information of the problems facing the environment, methods that are being used to solve those problems, and some innovative ideas that have yet to be implemented. But for any change to take place, people need to step up and take the reins. With that in mind, the last event before the closing remarks was a workshop on the next generation of environmental leadership.

piecMother Nature wasn’t being very cooperative, making Saturday a rainy and cool day, but that did not keep conference-goers away. Every seat was filled as the workshop began with a video of UF Law students asking questions to former Senator and Governor Bob Graham. Graham didn’t mince words about what he thinks Florida needs. “From the tip of the panhandle to the Florida Keys, we need leadership,” he said.

Not only does the state need leadership, he said, but it needs participation in government and society, especially from young adults. Voting and other signs of participation have been declining in worrying numbers, Graham said. "One of the keys to the future of our robust democracy is for your generation to reverse this."

After the video concluded, the conference attendees were introduced to a panel of experts, who ranged from members of public boards to those who worked in the private sector. Discussion ranged from the confines imparted by the Sunshine open records laws to Florida’s place as 47th in terms of active citizenship. But throughout the workshop the message was clear: the solutions to our problems are out there, but Florida needs leadership.

And while the conference was attended by a crowd that devotes much of their personal and/or professional life to dealing with matters that confront the environment, Broome said that those credentials aren’t a requirement to bettering your surroundings or getting involved. "You don’t have to be a public interest environmental advocate to do things that are environmentally practical or beneficial."