Review: 'Paving Paradise' by Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite illuminates failed no net loss wetlands policy

What I didn't know about my first home, on St. Petersburg's southern tip, was that it was built on false premises.

The college featured brilliant professors and many acres of open land fronting the sherbet sunsets of Boca Ciega Bay. But the ground under our feet was raw fill. We lived and studied where a sweet curve of sunny sea grass beds and mangrove forest — naturally configured to slow hurricanes, grow seafood and filter pollutants — had been strangled for dollars by dredge.

It wasn't a unique situation. As Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite write in their hard-hitting new book, Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss, dredge-and-fill projects were so numerous by 1957 that a St. Petersburg Times editorial described "an incredible profusion of black slivers thrust lengthwise into the water, so numerous in places that the bay appeared to have been segmented by a series of dams." Small wonder new Floridians, like I once was, struggle for a sense of place.

Bulldozed and buried wetlands underlie the foundations of thousands of mines, highways, golf courses and shopping malls all over our state, despite clear federal and state policy calling for no net loss of wetlands. It was President George H.W. Bush who first articulated this policy in 1988. "We are going to stand wetlands protection on its ear," declared the marsh- and duck-loving president.

Pittman and Waite explain why that hasn't happened, and their probing, well-crafted narrative will keep you turning every page of their book. The prize-winning pair of St. Petersburg Times reporters spent four years researching the state of wetlands protection in Florida. They interviewed hundreds of people, ferreting out political pressure points, cynical numbers games and all the inventive ways we are lied to. (You don't really believe in mitigation, do you?)

They even analyzed satellite imagery to figure out just how many swamps and marshes have been covered over in concrete, since the folks who issue the permits had no idea. What they found was that between 1990 and 2003, during the same time that official federal policy called for no net loss of wetlands, 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands were covered over by pavement and other urban development.

The writers discovered a "topsy-turvy world where a minus can equal a plus, dry land masquerades as wet, and supposedly scientific test results don't count if they yield an undesirable answer." They found politicians "who pay lip service to protecting the environment but really only care how quickly their contributors can get permits." And they found "regulators whose work costs the taxpayers millions of dollars, yet they say their only power is to delay wetland destruction, not deny it."

Pittman and Waite invited regulators, lobbyists, governors, senators and citizens to describe, in their own words, their own roles in the asphalting of our state. The colorful cast of characters is shameless, and astonishingly frank.

"We're advocates. We advocate for who pays us," declares a powerful Tallahassee lawyer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned "Pave the World" as he teaches others to navigate around the state permitting system.

"The regulatory program doesn't say we're out here to deny permits," explained the man in charge of Tampa's Army Corps of Engineers office. "It says we're out here to process them." And process them they do. Between 1999 and 2003, the Army Corps of Engineers approved 12,000 permits in Florida allowing wetlands to be destroyed. Only one permit was denied during that time.

And by the way, many of the same characters depicted in this book are hammering Florida's 2009 Legislature right now, hoping to further weaken what wetland protections we have.

Paving Paradise isn't just about egrets and panthers and cypress trees going down the tubes. Pittman and Waite help us understand that when private citizens and businesses wipe out wetlands, dry out springs and dump pollution into our underground drinking water, taxpayers suffer the consequences and foot an enormous bill.

Fortunately, the writers offer a refreshingly clear-cut 12-step program toward a more honest accounting of wetlands protection in Florida. That in itself is worth the read and ought to be widely circulated.

Susan Cerulean wrote and edited "Wildlife 2060: What's at Stake for Florida?" and "Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf," as well as "Tracking Desire," a memoir about wetland-dependent swallow-tailed kites.

Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss

By Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite

University Press of Florida, 351 pages, $27

Meet the authors

Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite will talk about and sign their book at 6 p.m. Thursday at Williams House, 511 Second St. S, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Review: 'Paving Paradise' by Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite illuminates failed no net loss wetlands policy 03/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2009 1:04pm]

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