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
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
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. …