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Q&A: Meet new ERMD director Whitney Sapienza

Whitney Sapienza (Courtesy photo)

Whitney Sapienza was promoted May 30 to director of the tribe’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) after serving as assistant director for three and a half years. She filled the position previously held by Kevin Cunniff.

Sapienza has worked in several positions within ERMD since 2011. She has a degree in environmental science with a minor in sustainable aquatic sciences and a concentration in watershed hydrology from State University of New York in Syracuse. Sapienza also has a master’s degree in marine biology from Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Originally from the Long Island, New York, village of Northport, she has lived in South Florida for the past 15 years.

ERMD – with many employees, six sections and three offices – was the tribe’s first governmental department. It falls under the tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), which also includes the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

The Tribune asked Sapienza to share more about ERMD and her involvement in it. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Tribune: Tell us about your experience at ERMD.

Sapienza: Over the last 12 years I have had the honor of serving the tribe in several different capacities. 

I started working for ERMD in 2011 as a temporary employee in the department’s permitting program as an environmental protection specialist. From there I worked in the water quality program as a water quality technician, and then returned to the permitting program as an environmental resource technician. In 2013, I accepted the position of environmental protection specialist III, charged with oversight of the tribe’s environmental science division – implementing the wetlands and wildlife programs. In 2019, I was appointed as the acting assistant director.

Having the opportunity to work in several different programs and levels of the department has given me a unique prospective of understanding the opportunities we have to provide a high level of service to the tribal community.

Tribune: ERMD is charged with protecting the tribe’s environmental resources in a culturally sensitive manner.

Sapienza: For the tribe, cultural and environmental resources are one in the same. The ERMD is embedded within HERO – bringing together the ERMD, THPO and museum. Working together we have built a stronger understanding of culturally sensitive environmental resources through discussion with tribal community member representatives. Understanding the tribal community’s perspective on natural resource management projects is a priority within ERMD to ensure sustainable use of resources for the next seven generations.

Tribune: One of ERMD’s main functions is to assist tribal members who are planning projects that use or discharge water or affect surface or storm water drainage. Can you give us an example?  

Sapienza: The ERMD is one of the oldest departments, established within the tribe in 1987 (originally the Water Resources Department), with the original mission to implement the provisions of the Water Rights Compact among the tribe, the federal government and the state. With time, the programs and functions of the department have grown to meet the resource management needs of the tribe.

One of the core missions of the department is to ensure compliance of the criteria manual to the Water Rights Compact and tribal water code. Through this regulatory framework, ERMD reviews proposed projects that have the potential to impact surface or groundwater. For example, for projects that are adding additional roads, concrete, etcetera, onto a parcel for development purposes, we are ensuring that the appropriate criteria is met for protection of water quality, storm water storage availability, and that floodplain impacts are mitigated for.  

Tribune: Anything else you’d like to say to the tribal community?  

Sapienza: I am a devoted and hardworking employee, and as I step into my new role as director of the ERMD, I am honored to be able to provide support and recommendations for resource management within tribal lands. As a department, we have many exciting initiatives that are underway – including use of technology to increase our ability to monitor exotic vegetation and habitat changes on a wide scale. We welcome input and coordination from the tribal community, and I look forward to working with you all in my new role for the tribe.

For more about ERMD, go to, click on “Services,” and “Environmental Resource Management.”

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at