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In sprawling Florida, we still want to protect the environment

Floridians are committed to environmental protection. Our state's environmental regulations are sophisticated and enforced.

Through the Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever laws, we have one of the most aggressive and successful land-buying programs in the country, placing more than a million acres in preservation since the early 1990s. Many communities have voluntarily taxed themselves to buy other precious lands.

Why then do we feel anxiety and anger about our vanishing natural systems? Primarily because Florida's dramatic population growth has skewed the equation. Both the appearance and the reality is that Floridians are gobbling up our natural systems at an unsustainable rate. Many of us moved or stayed here because of the state's natural amenities; to see them in peril jeopardizes our quality of life and, if we're honest, creates some guilt in that each one of us is part of the problem.

We can quarrel about whether population growth is good or bad. Let's forgo that diversion and just recognize that there was little we could have done — or should have done — to limit the 500 to 1,000 people who moved to Florida each day in the half-century after Word War II. Those numbers are changing; some of our counties have slowed in population growth recently, but our experience over the past several decades clearly distinguishes Florida from, let's say, Minnesota or Missouri.

Assuming substantial growth rates continue, how do we resolve the conflict between the people and the land? What must Floridians do to preserve Florida's natural resources and landscape? I propose the following practical steps:

1 Embrace a sense of urgency. James Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency, discusses how we live in denial of looming and crippling problems. The "long emergency" is a concise description of Florida's current predicament. There are disturbing trends out there, including sea level rise due to global climate change. We know what many of the problems are; we know much of what to do about them. We're just irresponsibly slow to act.

We know our water resources are stressed; we know we're losing our productive agricultural lands at an alarming rate; we know our road systems operate at unacceptable levels; we know our economy is too undiversified; we know we should be allowing more density and preserving more open space; we know we should be building as though energy and water were scarce resources. We know we are leaving our children with bills they cannot pay. Yet we act as if we have plenty of time to address these challenges. We don't.

I am not an alarmist, but to paraphrase Kunstler, Floridians are sleepwalking into the future.

2 Identify what lands and waters must be preserved and do something about it. To envision a better Florida, we must identify and protect our most precious natural areas. Let us start with the scientifically sound identification of Florida's critical natural resources; we need to know where they are and how they function.

The good news is that this effort is already under way. For example, the flagship initiative of the Century Commission for Sustainable Florida is the Critical Lands/Waters Identification Project (CLIP). This program translates data into maps showing what must be conserved. These maps are accessible to the public and useful for statewide and regional strategic conservation planning.

This initiative and others like it provide essential information for policymakers. What do we do with this information? We discuss it with those who are affected, including landowners and local communities — and we figure out a collaborative way to protect these lands and waters.

The second piece of the puzzle is to find new and imaginative ways to conserve land by finding new ways to encourage landowners to limit the use of their properties. The good news is that this process is also under way. These conversations are occurring in many forums in Florida. Perhaps the most valuable is happening under the leadership of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is vetting the CLIP maps with landowners and communities.

Regulations will only get us part of the way toward protecting Florida's most precious natural areas, and it is often a fight. The new paradigm is to find incentives for landowners to dedicate substantial portions of their property as part of a more sustainable development or long-term use plan.

The goal is twofold: to work toward a common understanding of the land that should be conserved; and to find innovative ways for landowners to conserve those priority areas. Use data to identify; use dialog to preserve.

3Build better and differently. We must design sustainable communities and buildings. In this context, sustainability means that we live in a manner that supports our natural systems so that our children and grandchildren do not suffer for our actions.

With better design, we can save energy and water; find alternatives to driving everywhere; weather major storm events; create healthier living environments; compete more effectively for the labor base of the future; and preserve, restore, and enhance our natural environment. We can walk more lightly upon the land.

We already know what to do. "Best practices" are contained in the Energy Star and Florida Water Star programs, in the Green Building and Neighborhood Standards adopted by the U.S. Green Building Council and the Florida Green Building Coalition, and in the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program developed by the University of Florida's IFAS Cooperative Extension Service (and there are others).

But thousands of new building permits are still issued each year without a single solar panel, or cistern, or soil moisture sensor. This is crazy. Knowledge and technology will undoubtedly improve, but many examples of better practices exist right now.

Where is the sense of urgency to change our behaviors?

4Foster the magic of dialogue. Each of the concepts above requires dialogue among people and organizations who may not typically communicate with each other: scientists and legislators talking about climate change; technical folks from different universities sharing CLIP data; landowners and governments considering imaginative ways of encouraging wise land use; urban and rural citizens finding common ground; and architects, engineers, and policymakers revising and enforcing building codes to promote disaster resistance and water and energy conservation.

Our current system does not require, nor even foster, such personal interaction. We are content to live through the old models of forming public policy by pitting one side against the other — and then litigating when we don't get what we want.

The truth is that many of our natural systems are deeply stressed; we have caused this by growing without consideration of the long-term consequences. We cannot remain ignorant or even neutral about protecting the natural systems that sustain us. But the truth also includes the need to recognize private property rights as protected by the state and federal constitutions; these are not quaint historical relics. They live and breathe and guide our everyday actions.

We waste valuable time by engaging in the traditional battles when so much more could be accomplished by urgently facing Florida's challenges in a more focused and collaborative manner. As usual, Lincoln said it best:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Steven M. Seibert, policy director for the Collins Center for Public Policy, is former executive director of the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida and secretary of Florida's Department of Community Affairs. An attorney, mediator and former Pinellas County commissioner, Seibert has been involved with numerous planning and resource management organizations and efforts.

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For a copy of this issue of Forum, which includes these essays and six others, go to It was produced with the Askew Institute on Politics and Society

In sprawling Florida, we still want to protect the environment 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]
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