Florida: Of Manatees & Retirees

By McManus, Reed | Sierra, March-April 1992 | Go to article overview

Florida: Of Manatees & Retirees


McManus, Reed, Sierra


People in search of the good life have long been attracted to Florida. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon slogged through its swamps looking for the Fountain of Youth; 400 years later, retired Northerners flock there seeking warm weather, sandy beaches, and low taxes. Where the early explorers found "bears fattened on crabs and turtle eggs," condos now line the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. As the state's complex natural systems crumble under the weight of an ever-increasing population, many Floridians have come to realize that the tropical paradise they sought is slipping away.

Florida's modern history is written on a "For Sale" sign. In 1950, Florida was the nation's 20th most-populous state; now it is fourth, with 13 million residents. Every day 900 sun-seeking newcomers arrive; nine of the country's 12 fastest-growing metropolitan areas are in Florida. Meanwhile, the state's conservationists are trying to stay one step ahead of the bulldozers. Over the years, they've helped set aside 21 million acres of parkland. In 1986, Florida passed a formidable growth-management law that requires extensive planning by state, county, and municipal governments. In 1990 it enacted Preservation 2000, the most ambitious land-acquisition program in the United States. (In addition, 16 counties have spent $600 million to purchase environmentally sensitive land.)

Florida's urban development has occurred primarily along the coasts. As subdivisions vie with sea turtles for space, conservationists have responded by working for the prohibition of seawalls and other beach "improvements." Oil development threatens to mar the 8,400-mile coastline, which is second in length among U.S. states only to Alaska's. More than a million acres off the Atlantic and Gulf shores are still being considered for leasing by the federal Minerals Management Service, despite a 1990 promise by George Bush to ban oil leasing and drilling off Florida's coast for ten years.

Florida has the dubious honor of hosting 54 endangered or threatened animal species and 118 endangered plant species. Among the former are the West Indian manatee, a slow-moving marine mammal that can grow to 3,500 pounds and 13 feet long, whose primary cause of accidental death is pummeling by boat hulls and propellers. Only 30 to 50 Florida panthers, the largest surviving predator in the Southeast, roam their much-diminished territory in south Florida. They face poaching, poisoning (mercury recently killed at least two in Everglades National Park), and traffic (wildlife must run the gauntlet of "Alligator Alley," a highway across the northern tip of Big Cypress National Preserve). Other imperiled species include the red-cockaded woodpecker (a casualty of clearcutting in Apalachicola National Forest in the state's panhandle), the Southern black bear (which can be hunted legally even though only 1,000 of them roam wild), and the Florida crocodile, which once nested in the mangrove swamps later filled to create Miami Beach.

Florida does have its wildlife comeback stories: The American alligator slithered off the endangered species list in 1988 after 21 years; eagles, ibis, egrets, spoonbills, pelicans, and loggerhead turtles have also returned from the brink. The first federally designated refuge for endangered plants, an 8,000-acre habitat for 40 species that are found nowhere else, has been proposed for the sandy flats of central Florida, a prime urban development area near Orlando.

Waterlogged Floridians distinguish among many types of wetlands: cypress ponds, strands, and prairies; river swamps and floodplains; freshwater marshes, wet prairies, salt marshes, and mangrove swamps. Over the years, more than 9 million acres of wetlands (60 percent of the state's total) vanished as 1,400 miles of locks, canals, and levees were constructed. Along the way residents discovered that their water supply depends on the survival of these boggy places.

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