Florida's 'Great Mangrove Massacre' - Vistas versus Trees

Article excerpt

LIKE countless other waterfront-property owners in southern Florida, David Arnsby simply wanted a view.

Year after year he watched as fringes of mangroves, a thick tree with spidery roots, rose out of the bay behind his house, blocking sights of diving pelicans and shimmering sunsets. Laws protected the trees from easy trimming because of their ecological importance.

Then Republicans took over the state legislature, and Mr. Arnsby found relief. By June they had passed, and the governor signed, a law relaxing restrictions on cutting the estuarine plant.

Local papers dubbed what followed as the Great Mangrove Massacre. Property owners and developers from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic turned wild fringes into neatly manicured hedges or bulldozed them outright. The extent of the damage - more than 400 sites have been cut in this area alone - is now the hottest dispute in the state.

What happened in Florida provides a cautionary tale for Washington, where Republicans are seeking to rein in the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and soften a number of landmark environmental laws carefully constructed over three decades.

If the motive is right - to free property owners from bigfooted bureaucracy - the results can still be disastrous.

"The intent behind the legislation was to provide a balance between property rights and ecology," says Ken Jones, a state legislative staffer who helped draft the new Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act. He admits it may have tipped the scale too far in the other direction. "Certainly, the extent of the trimming was a disappointment in some areas."

The redwood may be grander, the autumn maple more arresting, but few trees are as ecologically important as the mangrove, whose red, black, and white species outline the bays and saltwater marshes of southern Florida.

MANGROVES are the cornerstone of the estuary. Their leaves are part of a food chain that extends from algae to the spotted sea trout. Their fingerlike roots provide anchor for pleated sea squirts and eared ark clams. Young fish find shelter in their fringes. Endangered and migratory birds nest in their branches.

While they serve as useful buffers against hurricanes, they obscure the very thing property owners treasure: patio vistas. Mangroves can grow at a rate of three feet a year.

The battle to trim these trees has swirled for a decade. Roughly 80 percent of the original fringes are already gone, replaced by sea walls and developments. The remaining stands were long protected by restrictive state and local laws and closely guarded by environmental agencies.

For years, property owners and developers faced a costly and time-consuming permit process to trim mangroves. …