I lived in Florida for nearly thirty years. Its landscapes and wildlife still inspire me. Its fragile environment serves as a canary in the coal mine for ecosystems everywhere. Here’s my view of Florida through my camera and words.
I often imagine what the early inhabitants of Florida saw as they fished in the rivers, hunted in the forests, and lived on the prairies. Breathtaking beauty exists in the Panhandle, on both coasts and in the central rolling hills of the peninsular state.
Unfortunately, wherever perfection exists, man attempts to perfect perfection. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the Sunshine State. Yet when we destroy one thing in an ecosystem, we are not just destroying a part; we are working on the erosion of the whole.
The wholesale destruction of mangroves for most of the twentieth century along the southern regions of the state should have sounded a warning. Without the mangroves, the entire southern coastal zone would be in danger of disappearing. Studies conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute show that in the Tampa Bay area alone, forty-four percent of the coastal wetlands acreage — including salt marshes and mangrove forests — have been destroyed over the last one hundred years.
What does this have to do with the ecosystem in which the mangrove lives? Plenty. The mangrove roots trap organic material and serve as surfaces for other marine organisms to attach and thrive. The forests themselves serve as the home base for marine life, and animals shelter themselves from the elements within the protective cover of the mangrove arms. The salt marshes serve as the lifeblood to the mangrove – a tree that revels in a salty environment.
Efforts to protect some of the last of rural Florida include the government buying lands at the federal, state, and local levels. However, places such as St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, with its nine-mile stretch of state park, cannot fight the development that is creeping up on the entrance to the park.
Even with the purchase of these lands for public use, ribbons of asphalt roads and ropes of boardwalks make an impact upon the pristine nature of the land. However, they are unavoidable if we are to enjoy the rawness of nature without doing more destruction, such as destroying the sea oat from its protective berth upon the dunes.
Those little wisps of stalks sitting upon the sand shoot deep roots into the dunes helping to keep the sand in place and thus preventing erosion. Without their presence, the coastline would begin disappearing back into the sea at an alarming rate.
In the middle of the state the connectivity to all that happens in every part of Florida is seen in the appearance of pollution in the rivers and springs, which lead directly into the Floridan aquifer and the drinking water.
Ichetucknee Springs, a long time local favorite for tubing and canoeing, appears to be one of the last pristine locations left in north Florida. Floating down the fast-flowing river past the great blue herons feeding on the banks, the turtles sunning on the rocks and the live oaks hanging low over the river, it is impossible to imagine that trouble lurks all around.
Yet recent studies from Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey show pollution from Lake City’s wastewater spray field is making its way down into the underground water system to the headspring of the Ichetucknee nearly fifteen miles away. The discovery of DEET traces in these waters should sound the alarm to wake up.
Studies show that an underwater highway beginning at Alligator Lake in Lake City connects to the headspring of the Ichetucknee, a completely spring-made river. The Ichetucknee River eventually flows into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe, several miles later, reaches the Suwannee River, which then flows into the Gulf Mexico.
If we can make the connection from Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, is it such a giant leap to connect the dots between the Keys, the Everglades, Tampa Bay, Miami, and the rest of the state and beyond? Florida’s example is one of the most visible, but the connections exist in every single ecosystem in the world.