If you are keeping up with local news, you are already aware that Florida is facing an environmental crisis of historic proportions. Like a water glass, the Florida peninsula is filling up with people. From the bottom of the glass in Miami and the Keys, along the sides of the glass up the coasts, to the upper half of the glass, including Orlando, The Villages, Marion County, Gainesville and into the Panhandle, people are putting down their roots, and human communities are growing.
Currently exceeding 20 million permanent residents, and more than 100 million tourists each year, Florida’s renewable and nonrenewable resources are being bulldozed, covered over, and depleted faster with every year that passes.
At an average density of 350 people per square mile, there is less and less space for native habitats and the wildlife they support. No longer the frontier state it was in 1950 with a total population of 2.8 million, and a density less than 50 people per square mile, today’s Florida is awakening to the reality that we must all live more sustainably.
While 75 percent of Floridians voted for the environmental protection intended by the Land and Water Legacy Amendment in 2015, our state government has been nothing but a great expense and disappointment, failing to provide true leadership with regards to environmental stewardship.
Many Floridians do not live in this state because of its shopping malls and condominiums. Rather, a majority of the state’s residents and tourists are here because of fabled green forests, colorful flowering plants, blue water lakes, crystal-clear springs, and white sand beaches. Unfortunately, Florida’s iconic natural treasures are the very places that are being cleared and polluted by greedy urban and agricultural development.
Housing developments march across the rolling hills in Marion County’s horse country. Strip malls stretch continuously along four-lane highways from city to city. Condominiums dominate our coastal islands and beach fronts. Peanut and watermelon fields stretch out of sight into an eternity of center-pivot irrigation systems. Dairies and chicken farms crowd thousands of confined animals into immense feed lots and barns.
And pollution generated by seemingly endless development projects are leaching into our drinking-water supply and bubbling out in our endangered springs.
These intensive developments enrich the few at the expense of the many. Even worse than the social injustice resulting from rampant development is the fact that every one of these for-profit human endeavors displaces more of the semitropical Eden that Florida once was. The verdant plant life, the skies teeming with birds, the clear lakes and springs full of fish, and the coastal waters long thought to be immune to human excesses, are all diminishing.
We are using Florida up. We are depleting her land, water, air, wildlife and future. Continuing to add a thousand more residents in Florida each day guarantees that those humans and animals that live in this state will have less and less.
The flip side of a growing economy is a shrinking environment. Powerful forces promoting growth are entrenched in Tallahassee. They play the game with almost all of the cards in their favor. They have the money, they have the governor’s mansion, they have the Florida Legislature, and they control all of the state environmental agencies.
Our elected leaders were put there with a responsibility and commitment to represent the public’s best interests. The evidence shows that those in power are not living up to their responsibilities. They are supporting the moneyed interests of their wealthy donors at the expense and degradation of Florida’s natural environment.
They will continue to wield their power of profit as long as the people do not hold them accountable. Please cast your next vote for the environment and for Florida’s sustainable future.
On Monday, the Governor’s Office announced this year’s Legacy Florida springs restoration projects, aimed at offsetting some of the damage done to Florida’s springs as a result of not enforcing existing environmental laws. Forty projects across the state will share $50 million from the state budget. Combined springs funding by the state is estimated at more than $365 million since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. This massive expense of the public’s money would not have been necessary if damaging urban and agricultural development had not been allowed in the first place.
With Tallahassee’s continuing success at promoting more development, there will never be enough dollars to undo the damage to Florida springs and other environmental wonders.
Robert Knight is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Learn more at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs (www.floridaspringsinstitute.org).