OSFR advisor Jim Gross has an editorial in the Gainesville Sun where he points out the economic benefits of unspoiled nature and water resources. This article deals with the Ocklawaha but the correlation to the Santa Fe or any other river is effortless and obvious.
Jim Gross: River restoration would boost ecotourism
By Jim Gross
Special to The Sun
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 23, 2016 at 6:07 p.m.
My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Moab, Utah. One might think that a small town like Moab, in the middle of nowhere, would not be a happening place. But if you don’t know, Moab has become the mecca of ecotourism, and it is booming. This small town is full of visitors who want to experience nature as God created it.
We met visitors from all over the country and from all over the world. Why are they there? Moab is situated in one of the most beautiful places in the western United States. People around the world are craving opportunities to experience nature undiluted and unpolluted. They come to hike, canoe, bicycle, fish, photograph and paint. And they come to simply absorb the beauty and tranquility.
After we returned to our home in Gainesville, I could not help but think of parallels to places in Florida. Ever since I first set foot in Palatka, I saw it as a diamond in the rough, a place waiting for a new and brighter future. Indeed, Palatka has a golden opportunity to become the Moab of Florida, but it has not yet fully experienced the vision.
What vision you may ask? It is a vision of a brighter economic future nestled among cypress canopies and sparkling springs. It is a vision of the Ocklawaha River restored to its former beauty and magnificence. It is a vision of people coming to Palatka from Florida and beyond to experience one of the most beautiful natural rivers ever to exist, and to spend money.
I understand this issue has been highly politicized for a long time. And yes, I am the executive director of Florida Defenders of the Environment, an organization dedicated to restoring the Ocklawaha River. But I was also a resident of Putnam County for eight years. I was a parent of three children attending schools in Putnam County from elementary through high school. My wife worked for the Putnam County School District, and I am well aware of the social, economic and educational challenges facing communities in Putnam County. I want to see Putnam County prosper and thrive just as much as the community I live in now.
Over the years there have been many arguments advanced for why the Ocklawaha River should not be restored. But those arguments have only diminished in number and intensity over time, while the arguments in favor of restoration have increased. The last remaining argument in favor of the status quo rests upon the purported quality of fishing in the artificial impoundment behind the Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam. But many fishermen already know that there will be more and better fishing opportunities when the Ocklawaha is fully reconnected to the St. Johns River. And there will be many other opportunities.
Imagination is the only limit to opportunity. Imagine a diverse group of eco-tour businesses guiding visitors on multi-day trips down the Ocklawaha River. Imagine new businesses leading quiet trips in the winter months, visiting newly reborn springs filled with gentle manatees gliding through crystal-clear waters. Imagine guided bicycle tours along the river greenway, with options for overnight lodging, fishing and paddling. Imagine new and expanded hotels and restaurants in Palatka serving discriminating world travelers and catering to their desires for cultural exploration, arts, entertainment and leisure. Putnam County and the surrounding areas can become this and much more.
Putnam County once had a vibrant economy. But like many other parts of our country, it has more recently suffered through difficult times. Much as we may all wish, we cannot bring back the thriving industrial economies that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. We need to seek new opportunities for business and development. Putnam County leaders need not be fearful. Local businesses need not be shouldered aside by outside interests. Locals will have the inside track for capitalizing on the assets of a restored river ecosystem and adapting to the emerging opportunities.
Putnam County can once again become a premier destination for travelers from distant places, just as it was a century ago. I would encourage Putnam County leaders to look at this issue in a new light. I would encourage them to travel to Moab and similar communities to see how ecotourism has become a mainstay for prosperity. I would encourage them to work with their elected leaders in state and federal government to begin building the bridge to a new future.
I have a vision for Putnam County and neighboring communities. It is a vision in which children grow, flourish, and reinvest in their communities. It is a vision of a people thriving in an economy based on its ecological heritage. It is a vision of beauty and bounty in a precious and unique river that draws people from around the world. Let us work together to make this vision a reality.
— Jim Gross is a professional geologist in Gainesville and the executive director of Florida Defenders of the Environment.