Gulf Restoration Network

United for a Healthy Gulf

 
Florida's Nature Coast Overview

 

Overview

The Beauty of Florida's Nature CoastFlorida has seen tremendous changes in the last century. In many places, the Florida that existed just 50 years ago is long gone. Lost to the bulldozer, the chainsaw, and the cement mixer, much of what was wild Florida is now but dim memories. The music of nature that once filled the air with the calls of red wolves, whooping cranes and ivory billed woodpeckers is too often silent now, replaced by the sounds of urban Florida. Yet, for all that is lost, there is great hope for the places that remain wild and free. Florida’s Nature Coast is such a place.

The Nature Coast is too important to let these challenges and threats go unanswered. GRN is working hard to protect and preserve the region by building a strong and vibrant coalition of groups who can stand up and fight back for this place.

Major projects that could shape the future of this region will come to a head over the next two years, and the fate of one of the most ecologically important areas left in the Gulf of Mexico hangs in the balance. Gulf Restoration Network has been working on Nature Coast issues since we opened our Florida Office in June of 2007. We are proud to be working with groups like SouthWings, Audubon of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Florida Defenders of the Environment, and advocates and artists like Eric Zamora. The work we have done together, the foundation we have laid to protect this amazing place will be tested as mines, developments, paper mills, and huge new road networks are poised for permits or approvals over the next two years.

What is a stake if these projects are approved or continue is staggering. Florida’s Nature Coast, comprised of the coastal counties along Florida’s Gulf Coast from Pasco County to Wakulla County, is one of the longest pristine and mostly undeveloped coastal wetlands systems left anywhere in the Gulf. Over a hundred miles of seagrass beds, wetlands, coastal hammocks, and coastal marsh comprise this ecological treasure. This is ground zero in terms of protecting what is left of the Gulf Coast of Florida.

We continue to build our Nature Coast Coalition and to deepen and strengthen our advocacy for this region by making saving the Nature Coast a statewide issue. This is one of Florida’s last frontiers, and we are on the front lines in the fight to protect it as it is for future generations.

 

 The Issues

Florida Black Bear

black-bear-photo-courtesy-florida-dept-enviromental-protectionWorking with a growing network of allies and supporters, Nature Coast advocates have worked diligently to protect and preserve Florida’s Nature Coast over the last few years. Stretching from just north of Tampa to the Big Bend region of Florida, the Nature Coast is one of Florida’s last wild frontiers. Hundreds of miles of healthy rivers, pristine coastal estuaries, and magnificent seagrass beds make the Nature Coast home to everything from manatees and sea turtles to Florida Black Bears. While the Nature Coast is an incredible ecological resource that has been mostly spared from the rampant over-development that has plagued Florida, there is growing pressure to develop this natural paradise. The bulldozers are at the gates of Eden.

One of the most egregious and dangerous development threats facing the Nature Coast is the Sunwest Harbourtowne project in coastal Pasco County. This mega-development is the poster child for everything wrong in Florida in terms of coastal development. Florida cannot support or sustain projects like this as we move into the future. Sunwest represents the mindset of developers that got Florida into our worst economic mess in decades.

The Sunwest Harbourtowne mega-development proposes to build massive amounts of housing and commercial space, as well as a golf course, within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal habitat for Florida Black Bears, coastal marsh and wetland systems, and regional seagrass beds all stand to be lost or degraded. Anyone who lives along the Gulf Coast can tell you that building huge new developments right along the coast as sea level rises and climate change worsens is the worst type of folly. The challenge of learning from our past mistakes in Florida and not repeating them is a daunting one indeed.

We are fighting back by building a coalition of allied groups to fight this project as we work with our allied groups the Gulf Coast Conservancy to stop this massive mistake dead in its tracks. We have launched a campaign to ensure decision makers in Florida do no permit this disaster, and that local communities and wildlife don’t end up victims of more Florida over-development. If we are to save the Nature Coast, this is a project that we must stop as it is poised at the southern gateway of the Nature Coast. Stay tuned for more information and updates as we continue this fight!

 

Residential Development

Joe_GRN_Earth_Month_2008_Beach_CleanupEven with a down economy a number of mega-development projects are being proposed in the Nature Coast.  The cookie cutter subdivisions of Tampa are marching north and unless we act now both the landscape and culture of the Nature Coast could be lost forever.  Sustainable development in the Nature Coast will require, and challenge us to produce, new thinking and new paradigms in terms of how we conceptualize and implement residential development.  Open space and greenspace, significant conservation reserves, mandatory use of native plants and landscaping, housing in scale and proportion to the surrounding landscapes and communities, and working developments around wildlife needs and corridors rather than the other way around are essential in the Nature Coast.  Sadly, the mega-projects we see proposed today (Sunwest Harbourtowne, Quarry Preserve, Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary) either address these issues with greenwashing, or they simply ignore them.   We need agencies like the Florida Department of Community Affairs to stand strong and ensure that growth patterns in the Nature Coast, particularly along the coast, are sustainable and put the resource and the rights of existing residents first.  The bulldozers are at the gates of Eden and what happens next is up to us.

 

Water

MangrovesWater is the lifeblood of the Nature Coast.  From springs and spring fed rivers, to black water rivers, to the vast coastal marshes and estuaries water is the key ingredient that makes this amazing place possible.  Some of Florida’s premier rivers (Withlacoochee, Suwannee, Wakulla, Crystal, Weeki Wachee, etc.) flow through the Nature Coast as they gently meander to the Gulf of Mexico.  These rivers, the freshwater from springs and from rainfall, reach the Gulf of Mexico and then form some of the most productive coastal estuaries anywhere in the United States.  You can’t separate the inland water features like the Green Swamp from the Nature Coast.  All are interconnected and interdependent.  The Nature Coast region, although impacted to an extent by water withdrawal and drought, is still relatively healthy when it comes to water. 

 

Water Quality - Increasing development, agricultural runoff, and proposals like the East Pasco Landfill all are part of a range of threats to water quality in the Nature Coast.  In many ways the region has good to high water quality in our lakes, rivers, wetlands, and estuaries.  Increasingly though even seemingly pristine springfed rivers like the Weeki Wachee or the Rainbow River are seeing shocking increases in nutrient pollution and pollutants like fecal matter.  Over use of nutrients/fertilizers for yards and agriculture is polluting every spring in the Nature Coast.  Big Ag (cattle/dairy operations) continues to pollute the Suwannee River.  This pollution is both dangerous for people and wildlife in the rivers and springs, but then reaches our coastal estuaries causing algal blooms and threatening industries like the clam aquaculture operations in Cedar Key, Fl.  The solution to this problem is effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and local and regional fertilize and septic tank ordinances that clean up our water bodies.

Water Quantity - The danger lurking along the next bend of the river are massive plans to “harvest” water from the Nature Coast region to lubricate the continued expansion of the growth machine in Tampa or Orlando.  And within the Nature Coast developments like The Villages continue to demand ever increasing amounts of water.  We must take a stand, right here and right now, that rivers like the Withlacoochee River and the Suwannee River are off limits in terms of massive water supply plans.   These rivers serve a valuable purpose for wildlife, area residents, and our coastal fisheries.  We have already seen wetlands and rivers (Weeki Wachee, etc.) in the southern Nature Coast negatively impacted by regional water withdrawal and over-pumping.  We have to draw a line and say no more.

 

Wildlife

We are blessed along the Nature Coast with a vibrant and amazing diversity and mosaic of wildlife and wild places.  The richness of life here, ecosystems teeming with biodiversity and a rich and abundant web of life makes this place a natural wonder for all of America.  This is one of Florida last, best places.  The Nature Coast is the Florida Black Bear as it ambles along secret pathways known only to it and its kin.  The Nature Coast is the gentle manatee grazing in a field of seagrass with its calf.  The Nature Coast is the swallowtail kite soaring over the pines.  The Nature Coast is a place where perhaps in the deepest wildest corners of the region a Ivory-Billed Woodpecker or two still might take flight over the swamp.  Wildlife in the Nature Coast, from the small insects to the large Black Bears, is a reminder of a Florida that once was, and still could be again if we have the grace and wisdom to protect it.  Threats ranging from over-development to habitat loss and fragmentation threaten the wildlife of the Nature Coast.  It is imperative that we speed up public lands acquisition in the Nature Coast and then in turn manage our public lands for the protection and benefit of wildlife.  We can’t afford to lose one more inch of habitat to bulldozers, dredges, poor permits, nuclear plants, mines, or roads to nowhere.  The Nature Coast could well be the place that state and federal agencies relocate Florida Panthers that are pushed out of southwest Florida due to growth.  If Florida Red Wolves ever make a comeback in Florida after their population is increased via captive breeding programs it could be in the Nature Coast.  The Nature Coast, both Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges, is essential to the recovery of Whooping Cranes in America.  This is the place where we can take a stand for wildlife of today, and of tomorrow.

 

Resource Extraction

Resource extraction includes all types of activities including logging and mining. 

Mining - Most folks don’t think of Florida as a mining state.  The reality is that Florida has significant, and environmentally destructive, mining activities across the state that include phosphate, sand, and limerock mines.  The Nature Coast faces all three types of mines, and all three leave a scarred and altered landscape.  Proposed megamines like the Tarmac Limerock/Aggragate Mine in coastal Levy County exemplify the risk and environmental dangers such projects pose.  Everything from surface habitats of wetlands and coastal hammocks to the very underground aquifer that supplies our drinking water can be forever altered by mining.  Coastal ecosystems receive the runoff from mines, as well as have to suffer from reduced flows of freshwater to the coast.  Ripping the earth asunder with draglines and dredges to produce mined materials to build more roads is a recipe for disaster and should not be the future of the Nature Coast.  As the phosphate industry ends their reign of destruction in central and southwest Florida they are turning to the Nature Coast as companies own thousands of acres of mineral rights for phosphate in the Suwannee River watershed.  This looming battle may well be one for the heart and soul of the Nature Coast.

Logging – Silviculture and logging have long been a part of the Nature Coast.  Sustainable harvest of trees can be a part of the future of the Nature Coast, but pressure to convert public lands to tree farms is an ongoing threat.  Logging for restoration purposes (logging out slash pines for long leaf pines) makes sense, but has to be done in a way that does as little harm to the ecosystem as possible. Logging on private lands has to be done in conjunction with stronger environmental standards and enforcement of those standards.  One mounting and pressing threat to the Nature Coast is the logging of cypress forests and wetlands to produce cypress mulch.  Taking mature cypress forests and grinding them into cheap mulch is unacceptable.  Several organizations, including the Save Our Cypress Coalition, are working to pressure Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot to stop selling cypress mulch to lesson demand.  Excellent environmentally sustainable alternatives exist to cypress mulch, and cypress swamps and wetlands are critical ecosystems in the Nature Coast.