Disappearing Florida – Squeeze on the Swamp

Lettuce Lake Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Deep in the bald cypress forest of the Corkscrew Swamp in South Florida is Lettuce Lake. Its surface is covered with a mat of soft green floating vegetation known as “water lettuce.” The water lettuce provides shelter for crayfish, small fish, small reptiles, and amphibians and provides food for turtles and a vast variety of insects. Egrets and Little Blue Heron have been known to frequent the Lake, walking on the water lettuce while foraging on its complex root system. Like the Big Cypress Swamp and the nearby Everglades, the Corkscrew Swamp is a special place, not only for its beauty but its habitat for wildlife.

The entire swamp system is vitally important to those who live in South Florida as well, as it provides an important link within South Florida’s fresh water system. Mangroves and swamps also are important when it comes to capturing and controlling the carbon we continually pump into the air. A report by the Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network, states “The simple implication of this is that the longterm sequestration of carbon by one square kilometer of mangrove area is equivalent to that occurring in fifty square miles of tropical forest.”

But the political pressures from developers and others continually press against these precious lands, as they do on other important parts of our environment. Dr. James Hansen, one of our country’s leading and most conservative scientists on climate issues, in his Storms of My Grandchildren, calls us to action to reverse our penchant to continue “business as usual” with its trappings of “greenwash” – our federal and state governments’ talking the talk but not walking the talk.

Hansen’s concern about our lack of action: “(F)ailure to take these actions would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes and vanishing species….Most of the politicians advertised themselves as being ‘green’, but … it amounted to ‘greenwash,’ demonstrating token environmental support while kowtowing to fossil fuel special interests.”

Florida has been no stranger to greenwash and the political pressures from lobbyists and their special interests. The push of special interests in our legislature is the subject of Paving Paradise, Craig Pittman’s and Matthew Waite’s work about Florida’s vanishing wetlands. Paving Paradise provides insight into the often-too-cozy relationships between government and developers.

Recently our Swamp – the Everglades – was involved; fortunately, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing new wetland permits to limestone miners despite the possible risk to Miami-Dade County’s water supply. Hoeveler threw out all the permits. An AP release noted:

“The permits are required to extract limestone from the Lake Belt… The 57,500-acre region, which borders the eastern edge of Everglades National Park, also provides 40 percent of Miami-Dade County’s drinking water.”

However, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 3 to 2 decision, reversed Hoeveler, saying the Judge hadn’t shown proper deference to the Corps of Engineers decisions. The case was sent back to the Judge for reconsideration. In January 2010, “after extensive study and coordination with public and other state and federal agencies,” the permits were issued. The finding? “(T)he discharge of fill material into 10,044 acres of Waters of the United States for mining in the Lake Belt area is not contrary to the public interest ….”

In the end 1,500 acres were reserved and 1,708 acres were transferred to the state to enhance the Swamp’s boundary and mitigate against damaging seepage.

A partial victory for environmentalists, but civilization’s pressures are relentless.

It’s the continued vigilance of organizations like 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Everglades Foundation, and the willingness of organizations like the Sierra Club who go to court on these sorts of issues that challenge the political pressures on governmental agencies and thereby provide the greatest resource to achieve some sort of balance against the Squeeze on the Swamp.

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. This is the ninth in our series Disappearing Florida.

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