Great Awakening to protect Florida’s natural resources

Ever optimistic, I hope the hallway conversation at this weekend’s Everglades Coalition meeting is lit with news of the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening began last year when increasing numbers of Floridians from the Gulf to the Atlantic found the same words to express what they were seeing happen to our quality of life, our beaches, our fishing, our coral reefs, our rivers and Everglades. “Look,” people said to their elected officials, “everything we value is at risk from pollution streaming from Lake Okeechobee.”

Risk measured against the passage of time is a constant theme for Everglades advocates, now gathering on Hutchinson Island. But a wider, more impatient audience can grasp what is at stake from the point of view of another island, 2,000 miles from the nearest shore.

When Western explorers discovered Easter Island in 1722, they were stunned, as we are, by colossal lava monoliths staring mutely to the Pacific from a barren landscape.

Scientists have teased the mystery of Easter Island from its soil. A rich subtropical forest sustained its first settlers thousands of years ago. Around 800 A.D., the forest that had provided energy, food, housing material and tools disappeared.

The mastery of Easter Island involved engineering to roll hundreds of tons of carved lava on the smooth fulcrum of harvested palms. From experience, the Easter Islanders knew about tipping points.
And so do we. We have our own examples, like the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.

This is where the Great Awakening comes in.

Our dredged canals, pumps and lake-regulation schedules have done their jobs too well. Pollution is pouring from Lake Okeechobee into waterways, from the Caloosahatchee River to the St. Lucie, in an unending stream.

State leaders say there is no choice but to parcel out the pain to accommodate the benefits to Florida’s cities and agriculture, ignoring tipping points as the tribal chieftains of Easter Island must have.
Elected officials say they are doing everything possible for Lake Okeechobee, expecting Floridians will hope for the best, as they always have.

Is it possible that the leaders of Easter Island felt the same way after all of the nearby wood had been harvested, requiring workers to go farther and farther from protected villages on the unsteady traction of complex alliances with other tribes to take what had once been a simple commodity? Hope for the best.

Isn’t win-win a better scenario than win-lose? Isn’t privatization the best way to protect the public commons? No doubt, as their hourglass was draining, there were a few leaders on Easter Island who maintained that the glass was half-full, not half-empty, right until the end. They would have been called optimists. Today we call them extinct.

Until 2005, Florida’s coastal communities had ignored the warning signs: algae blooms, fish kills, beaches unfit to walk on much less swim near. Inattentive elected officials had bigger fish to fry, weakening environmental regulations or promoting development in wetlands. Now there are no fish to fry.
Oh, the status quo will wage a catchy campaign with glossy brochures and talking points. The fish will come back — that’s what they always do.

The tribes of Easter Island had seen it all before, too, until there was nothing left to see.

We know what we have to do to restore Lake Okeechobee and downstream natural resources and economies that depend on clean, fresh water. We need more land for surface-water storage and cleansing — lots more. We need government policies on land use, water-resource management and the environment to reflect what is good and necessary for the future, because what exists today is not even close to a balance.

Today, Everglades restoration is based on technologies, costing billions of dollars, that even some government scientists don’t believe will work. Far better to spend that money, now, to acquire lands mostly in production of sugar, a crop that could not be profitably grown if not for immense subsidies approved by members of Congress, people we elect.

Delay only increases the costs and the likelihood of reaching a tipping point. Only the state of Florida can bring unwilling sellers to the table. Who will do it?

This is a good place to return to the essentially optimistic nature of Florida’s Great Awakening.

Florida is prospering. Florida’s coastal real-estate values are higher than a kite. It is wonderful that people never involved before in conservation are opening their wallets to contribute to change.

Better late than never, right?

Better Hutchinson Island than Easter Island.

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