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Date of Issue: May 26, 2005

Sandscript

Widespread wetland loss in Florida ongoing issue

It would appear that what has long been suspected has been quantified - we are losing wetlands in Florida at an alarming rate despite so-called legal protections, and that mitigation efforts are woefully inadequate to restore the vital ecosystems.

St. Petersburg Times reporters Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite have reported that the state has lost 84,000 acres of wetlands in the past 15 years to developments. The  process was approved by federal, state, regional and local agencies in the form of 12,000 permits and only one denial.

Florida is second only to Alaska in sheer volume of wetlands, with 11.2 million acres. You look at the total and then the acreage lost to development and it doesn't look all that bad, but if you think about 84,000 acres as a lot of downed mangroves, cypress stands and freshwater marshes.

To replace a wetland with a housing development or shopping center, a whole slew of permit applications taking up to a  year or more for approval must be obtained. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the final arbiter in the permitting scheme.

In the early 1970s, the Corps began following a policy referred to as "no net loss." The key element of the policy was mitigating destroyed wetlands by building new wetlands in another location. In theory, it seems to make sense. In practice, it's another matter.

See, wetlands can take decades to develop. They're pretty fragile, easily disturbed by salinity changes in the water, water table changes due to drought or flooding, and myriad other factors.

Wetlands are also a slow-growing enterprise. In the case of mangroves, figure a 10-foot-high tree is about 10 years old. Contrast that with, say, an exotic Brazilian pepper tree, which seem to grow about an inch a minute.

The Corps requires something like a 1.5 to 1 ratio of restored wetland to lost wetland, and requires the developer to monitor for something like five years, issuing the government a periodic report on how the spindly little plants are doing.

But the Corps seldom does its own inspections on the mitigation projects, and the projects don't generally do so well. And if a mangrove forest takes decades to develop into something of environmental worth, five years is a pretty paltry time for a new growth attempt to make any type of a foray into the good of Mother Nature.

Wetland worth

So what's the good of a swamp, anyway?

Well, its worth plenty to a lot of bugs, birds, fish, crabs and other critters.

Besides providing homes, food and places to hide for all our little finny, scaly and feathered friends, wetlands can help protect the shoreline from erosion.

Marshes also do an excellent job of filtering man-made and man-produced nutrients like fertilizer and pesticides carried by stormwater runoff from reaching the bays and Gulf of Mexico. Imagine a marsh as a big A/C filter that never has to be cleaned.

Wetlands also offer a buffer to floodwaters and serve as a windbreak in storms. No, a 50-foot mangrove probably won't withstand 140-mph winds in a hurricane, but its chances are a lot better than a 50-foot Australian pine. A whole lot better.

Then and now

In "A Historical Geography of Southwest Florida Waterways, Volume Two, Placida Harbor to Marco Island," Dr. Gustavo Antonini, David Fann and I wrote and illustrated the changes that took place in that region of the state, following up an earlier book that included the channels and waterways from Anna Maria Island to Lemon Bay.

Dredge and fill was a fact of life for Florida for decades. Muck from bays and creeks was pumped over wetlands to make way for waterfront homes. Canals were dredged through mangroves, with the fill dumped on the banks behind seawalls to allow more houses. Key Royale was created thus on a spit of land called School Key.

But it was much, much more extensive at points south.

"Historical Geography," states, "The peaceful communities and cities of today give little indication of recent conflicts in the region. In fact, few locations in the nation have received as much attention from federal, state, regional and local managers and regulators of waterway and coastal development as has Southwest Florida.

"Pressure from developers to dredge and fill vast tracks of land for home construction behind seawalls and embankments prompted statewide attention and federal actions, which resulted in the curbing of permits that allowed growth and caused massive changes in the way Florida's leaders - and the developers - viewed and permitted development.

"Some interests favored waterway construction to benefit navigation and riverine commerce. Meanwhile, land-oriented interests advocated waterways as great drainage ditches for quickly removing unwanted water from valuable agricultural acreage. The result was heated debate and dramatic changes."

Maybe not all that dramatic a set of changes after all.

'Hoot' bust for us, boon for Boca Grande

The movie "Hoot," based on Florida author Carl Hiaasen's children's novel of the same name, apparently will be filmed in Boca Grande later this summer. Location scouts were looking at Anna Maria Island and Cortez as a possible locale for the film.

Hiaasen and Jimmy Buffett are producing, Wil Shriner will direct. Yes, it's that Jimmy Buffett, and the fact his sister lives in Boca probably had something to do with that island getting the location win.

"Hoot" is classic Hiaasen, by the way, which reads somewhat like any of his books written for adults except for a lack of sex and dimishment of violence. It tell the story of Roy Everhardt, a new kid in school, and his travails as he tries to fit into both the new class and his new adopted state of Florida. It's a good read for those who've missed it.

Filming in Boca Grande is set to begin in July and should run about a week, producers estimate.

A library without books

According to a news report in the Tampa Tribune, the University of Texas library in Houston is getting rid of its books in order to make room for a "24-hour electronic information commons, a fast-spreading phenomenon that is transforming research and study on campuses around the country."

In lieu of books, the library will feature something called "software suites," which are "modules with computers where students can work collaboratively at all hours, plus an expanded center for writing instruction and a center for computer training, technical assistance and repair."

Sounds like one big computer class, doesn't it?

It's not like the books are being burned, though. They'll find a new home within the Texas university system and reference texts will remain.

The move to a computer world is one that is needed, if not demanded, by students. And the 24-hour day is also a reflection on the study habits of college kids. As one library administrator put it, "They live in an electronic world. We talk about a 9-to-5 day, but they work on a fundamentally opposite schedule - 9 to 5 at night."

Sandscript factoid

According to Pittman and Waite of the Times, "Three years ago the Corps approved requests by limestone mining companies to destroy 5,400 acres of wetlands at the ends of the Everglades. What's left are lifeless lakes 90 feet deep that are 'probably not nearly as valuable as the wetland that was there before they dug the hole,'" one official said.

Why issue the permits, then?

As another Corps official put it, "The regulatory program doesn't say we're out here to deny permits. It says we're out here to process them."

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