December 22, 2014

Geography as destiny

In 1960, I spent Hurricane Donna in my best friend's snug new ranch house in Fort Myers, playing with paper dolls by candlelight, while a few blocks away, the rest of my family was mopping up torrents of water pouring in through our rickety old casement windows and screaming as 18 trees came crashing down in the yard. But if Donna didn't turn me into a hurricane phobic, owning Southwest Florida waterfront property sure did. So I trembled all through last summer's storms, especially when my boyfriend flew off to visit his family in St. Lucia just a few days before Hurricane Ivan crossed the Atlantic on an unusual southerly path-straight toward St. Lucia.

George managed to get on a plane just hours before Ivan devastated nearby Grenada, but five days later that hurricane had followed him up the Caribbean and right into the Gulf. Though the storm missed us, we marveled at the forces that kept it churning across thousands of miles of open sea; and as we all know, nature has given us more to marvel about in the months since then.

In a year with one stunning proof after another of the power of nature, it's fitting that this 35th anniversary issue is devoted to the environment. Our sunny climate and sensual beauty have always been the central story of the Gulfshore, the time-honored engine of all our fame and prosperity. But back in 1970, the publishers of our first issue probably never dreamed how growth would transform what was then still a sparsely settled and largely unspoiled region.

Though much of our natural environment has been lost, we've won some important battles, says Wayne Daltry, director of Lee County's Smart Growth Initiative. "Florida is probably the most developable state in the United States," he says, with endless acres of warm, flat land just inviting settlers to impose their visions and aspirations on it. In the '70s, when a tsunami of Northerners was heading to Southwest Florida, great stretches of shoreline, from the Ten Thousand Islands all the way up to Charlotte Harbor and Lemon Bay, were platted and ready for development. But most of that development never happened, as what Daltry calls a "rising environmental ethic" fueled fierce battles to preserve our coastline. As a result, we have many miles of shoreline still in its natural state, in contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder development that lines most of Florida's southeast coast.

Geography may be destiny, but clearly, we can help shape that destiny. In his provocative new Collapse, Jared Diamond explains how societies that ignore the limits of their natural resources can destroy themselves. (If we ruin our environment, we won't starve to death, as the Norse settlers in Greenland did a thousand years ago when they stripped away their fragile grasslands, or commit genocide, as Rwandans did after they deforested their hills; but we will lose the well-heeled visitors and newcomers that drive every aspect of our economy.)

The challenge now, says Daltry, is to "better manage our interior." He ticks off a host of environmental imperatives: water management (a huge issue that affects everything from agriculture to natural landscapes to, Daltry believes, the increase in red tides); acquiring more wild lands, in tracts big enough to protect wildlife and preserve natural systems; and redeveloping our cities in ways that sustain resources and value. If those sound like lofty abstractions, as so many growth and environmental topics tend to, here's a way to make them real and urgent: Lee County, which now numbers 500,000 residents, expects-and has already approved plats for-another million people. And Collier has approved a doubling of its population, to around 600,000. If we think growth has already strained our environment and quality of life, imagine what those numbers will do.

Eternal vigilance, Daltry warns, is the price of preserving our future. You can win a dozen battles to save a forest; lose one, and it's gone. As Ted Williams points out in this issue in "Cry of the Panther," the inexorable pressures of growth can overwhelm officials, government agencies and all our good intentions. And though these days, almost everybody, from developers to politicians, understands the importance of preserving our environment, there's just not as much left to protect. And that worries Daltry. "We have better science and laws than we did 35 years ago," he says. "But we have way less room to make mistakes."

-Pam Daniel, Editorial Director