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Tribe’s first department – ERMD – turns 35

ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea looks up in the trees at a home site inspection in Big Cypress in 2016. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The Seminole Tribe’s first governmental department – one tasked with protecting and managing its environmental resources – marks 35 years in operation this year.

The Tribal Council created the Water Resources Department in 1987, which became the Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD), for the purposes of developing a tribal water code. Two years later, the Council would also create the Seminole Water Commission to oversee ERMD.

Since those early years, ERMD has expanded into a bustling and complex department with many employees, six sections and three offices. Its mission is to protect, manage, and conserve the tribe’s environmental and natural resources in a culturally sensitive manner. Today, one of its most important functions is to assist tribal members who are planning projects which use or discharge water or affect surface or storm water drainage.

“Having an environmental department has been, and will continue to be, centrally important to the future sovereignty and success of the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” Paul Backhouse, the senior director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), said.

ERMD, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum fall under the tribe’s HERO umbrella.

“Working amongst the whole staff of ERMD for the last several years, I have seen how every single one of them puts their heart and soul into the important work they do to serve the tribal community and to protect and manage the tribe’s precious environmental resources,” Backhouse said.

‘Indispensable’

Attorney Michelle Diffenderfer, of the Lewis, Longman & Walker law firm, began work on behalf of ERMD in 1994 and continues to do so today. She remembers many of the tribal leaders, attorneys and employees who laid the groundwork for a successful department.

“Jim Shore was indispensable to the beginning of it,” Diffenderfer said. “It was Jim and Steve Walker, who was general counsel at the South Florida Water Management District, who negotiated the Seminole Water Rights Compact on behalf of the state in the late 1980s.”

Walker went into private practice in 1991 but was asked by Shore several years later to advise the tribe on Everglades restoration issues.

“I have been working with the tribe, most frequently with ERMD, on a variety of environmental and water related issues ever since,” Walker said.

Diffenderfer said she, Shore and Walker have worked with a number of individuals over the years that have had an impact on ERMD. Her list includes Craig Tepper, the first director of the Water Resources Department, the late former Trail Council liaison Norman Huggins, former Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger, former Chairman James Billie, President Mitchell Cypress and more recently Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. She also remembers working with the late former Big Cypress Councilman Cicero Osceola and the late David “Bob” Motlow. Agnes Motlow, his widow, has been Shore’s executive assistant since 1989.

Diffenderfer said there are many more that could be mentioned.

Success story

Diffenderfer helped to implement the Water Rights Compact and tribal water code, which provided a structure for entitlements – whether from surface water or groundwater. Initially the focus was surface water rights for agricultural and ranching needs, she said, and, later, rights for aquifer water. Diffenderfer said ERMD has grown as the tribe’s needs have grown.

“Along with other projects, ERMD is hard at work doing an update to its water quality standards right now,” she said. “It’s about how the tribe manages its environmental resources on the reservation – water, water quality, wetland systems and habitat.”

The tribe’s unique Water Rights Compact also allows it to challenge projects that are proposed on adjacent lands to the reservations. A recent example is ERMD’s successful pushback of a proposed Lake Okeechobee water storage project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was to be located near the Brighton Reservation.

The tribe believed it could result in flooding on the reservation and would be a threat to cultural assets, among other issues. After years of opposition by the tribe, the Corps recently dropped the project. Diffenderfer said ERMD keeps a close eye on such proposals because they often resurface.

“The tribe has been able to become self supporting through gaming and now is extremely successful in endeavors that enable them to protect themselves,” Diffenderfer said. “ERMD has really come a long way and it’s ultimately for the benefit of the tribe and for future generations for their environmental resources to be clean and well protected.”

More about ERMD can be found here.

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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 damonscott@semtribe.com.
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