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Saving Blackwater: Round Two


Fending Off Drilling in the Forest
By Jeremy Morrison

The Blackwater River State Forest-drilling bill is dead. Again. For now.

Rep. Doug Broxson, (R-Gulf Breeze) killed the bill Feb. 20. He doesn’t plan on taking up the banner again unless it’s atop a swell of public support.

“I haven’t gotten that sense,” Broxson said.

The reception the representative received this year as he floated the idea of exploring for oil and natural gas on public land—more specifically, in Blackwater—was “not positive.” Without a partner in the senate and facing vocal opposition within his district, Broxson backed away from what he called a “phenomenal idea.”

“It was never my intention to bullheadedly take a position that wasn’t in the best interest of the two counties,” he said.

A key voice of opposition belonged to Milton-resident Marsha Fuqua. Along with her sister, Erin, she educated the public about Broxson’s intent, launched a Facebook page focused on fighting the bill and also delivered a 2,500-signature petition to the representative.

“It makes me feel glad that, for now, we were able to protect something that is so dear to us,” Fuqua said.

Energy War

In mid-January, Rep. Broxson introduced his HB 431 for consideration during the 2013 legislative session. A month later he withdrew it.

That was enough time for Fuqua, 33, to sink her teeth into the issue. A bad taste lingers still.

“The truth is, the more I learn about it, the more I realize it’s a really horrible idea,” she said.

The concept of drilling on public land in Blackwater was news to Fuqua. She was unaware of the similar efforts last year.

“A lot of people didn’t know,” the Milton resident said.

When she learned of Broxson’s proposal, Fuqua and her sister began spreading the word. They launched “Save Blackwater River State Forest” on Facebook and a petition against HB 431 on change.org. They spent their Saturdays in downtown Milton—Erin with baby in tow—talking to anyone who would listen.

“We’d do that on Saturdays,” Fuqua said. “On Sundays, I’d go around to hunting camps and boat ramps.”

The sisters found many people sympathetic to their mission. But the response wasn’t always positive.

“I’ve been really cussed out,” Fuqua said. “I’ve been spittled on more times than I care to be spittled on.”

Some people, it turned out, were down with the prospect of drilling. They supported Broxson’s rally-cry of jobs and energy independence—what Fuqua refers to as “all the propaganda they were feeding us.”

HB 431 would have authorized “the Board of Trustees of the Internal Trust Fund to enter into public-private partnership with business entities to develop oil and gas resources on certain onshore state lands under specified conditions; provides financial, technical, and operational risk of exploration, development, and production of gas and oil resources is responsibility of private entity; provides for proposals and contracts.” Translation: Fairways Exploration and Production, LLC, currently exploring in Alabama’s neighboring Conecuh National Forest, was about to throw a party.

Broxson said the bill would bring hundreds of jobs to the area, and estimated between $30 and $60 million in revenues for the state. He painted the need to explore Blackwater as integral to the greater, global energy game.

“We’re in a war for energy,” the representative said in late January.

Oil fields have been active in nearby Jay for decades. Energy companies once primed Blackwater River State Forest itself—pockets of privately owned parcels are still fair game—but packed up because any potential payoff was too deep and expensive to pursue.

Broxson explained that it might be time to return to the forest. Today’s market could merit a more extensive look.

“We’re at $92 to $100 a barrel,” Broxson said.

The representative downplayed any environmental concerns—“the footprint is just almost invisible”—and described the potential for public-private partnerships in the forest as a “win-win.”

“We’re wanting to do our part to do energy independence,” Broxson said.

Fuqua wasn’t sold. She didn’t understand all this talk about energy wars, didn’t believe it’d result in a price drop at the pumps. She wrote her representative a letter.

“I was like, ‘Where are you getting these figures?” Fuqua said. “It’s a global commodity. It doesn’t matter how much we produce here, it’s still gonna cost us a shit-ton of money.”

The Milton resident was also skeptical of Broxson’s job claims—“the oil companies already have crews and people who are trained and already employed”—but mostly she was concerned about what impacts exploration might have on the forest and environment.

“Blackwater’s for everybody,” she said. “It’s part of the vast eco-system.”

Fuqua grew up on property bordering Blackwater forest. She enjoyed its expanse.

“There’s nothing to do, just run around and explore the woods,” she recalled. “You’ve got horses and you’ve got a huge forest—that’s still what we do today when we’re not working.”

When speaking to people about HB 431, Fuqua was sometimes criticized for being an environmentalist or a “treehugger against our local economy.” It was a new experience for her.

“I’ve never been an activist or anything like that,” she said.

But Blackwater was different. It was home. It inspired her to act. She felt the need to let people know what was being hatched in Tallahassee.

“Our goal was, ‘Oh my God, nobody knows about this, we have to tell them,’” Fuqua said, “‘Everybody needs to hear this.’”

Round One in Evers’ Backyard

This is the second year that Panhandle lawmakers have made a run on Blackwater. Last year, both Sen. Greg Evers (R-Crestview) and Rep. Clay Ford (R-Gulf Breeze) sponsored legislation to open up the forest to energy exploration.

Last year’s efforts initially pertained to the entire state of Florida. With stiff opposition from folks in the Everglades-end of the state, the bills were quickly whittled down to focus on Blackwater River State Forest.

“There may be some oil up there,” the senator said at the time. “They could actually get some. Who knows?”

Evers wasn’t touching Blackwater this year.

“I believe the implication last year was that I had the foresight 30 years ago to buy property,” the senator said.

One year to the day before Broxson pulled his bill, the IN reported that Evers owned land in Blackwater forest. The senator’s bill died the next day in the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee—a Republican-heavy body.

Evers said at the time that the bill would not have benefited him, pointing out that he could already explore on his private property. The experience did, however, play into his decision not to sponsor such an effort this year.

“I got ridiculed for it,” the senator said recently.

Though he didn’t shoulder a bill this year, Evers still believes drilling in Blackwater is in the state’s best interest.

“My thoughts haven’t changed,” the senator said a week before Broxson killed the 2013 attempt. “You’re talking about folks having jobs, you’re talking about a robust economy.”

Re-Education Preparation

Prior to pulling this year’s Blackwater bill, Rep. Broxson had scheduled a town hall meeting at the Jay Community Center. He went ahead with the forum after pulling the bill in an effort to educate constituents and clear up the “misinformation” among the public—what might be viewed as priming the pumps for next year.

“You know, I think it was a good discussion,” Broxson said after the meeting. “It was very honest and straightforward. You know, obviously a lot of emotion there.”

Fuqua described the meeting—which featured representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service—as “somewhat informative.”

“I was disheartened that not many of my questions were answered,” she said. “Not many of a lot of people’s questions were answered.”

Some people expressed concern that the meeting was held in oil-friendly Jay, as opposed to the more geographically-convenient Milton.

“Many of the locals used their time to basically say how awesome oil is,” Fuqua said. “I kind of still feel like they’re missing the point of the whole thing.”

Some people in attendance also took issue with Fuqua’s petition. They objected to a number of the signatures hailing from outside the representative’s district.

Broxson would later refer to it as a “peculiar petition.” The representative said that the vocal opposition was not the reason he killed his bill.

“No, the reason the bill—there are several reasons the bill was pulled,” Broxson said. “Primarily my senate sponsor was not willing to go through the same process, the town hall meetings, like I was going to do.”

Fuqua disagrees. She knows she made a difference. She’s sure the outcry of opposition was heard.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I definitely think that’s the reason he pulled the bill.”

But now that she’s gotten a glimpse of the game, the Milton resident understands Blackwater is in Tallahassee’s sights. She understands the forest will need protecting again.

“There were two bills before, and I’m sure there’ll be more,” Fuqua said. “This is not the last time our forest will be in jeopardy.”