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Environment, Politics & You

When Interests Collide. A Tale of Three Showdowns

What was once a navigable channel at Clam Pass is now waiting for crews restore water flow from the Gulf of Mexico

Photography by Jim Freeman

Four days after Christmas, Rodric MacKay, a wealth manager from suburban Chicago, walked into Alvin’s Island beach shop in Naples. He paid $4.99 apiece for two plastic shovels and headed for Clam Pass, an estuary park just north of the city. Alongside his 13-year-old son, Alec, the two began digging a trench in the beach. Others joined in, so he purchased more shovels—this time metal ones. More people brought more shovels. Somebody began carving out sand with a seashell. At night, they left the tools on the spot for whoever showed up in the morning. This continued well into February.

Clam Pass was starving. And when a lush ecological formation starves, you smell it. Like manured farmland in June, the earthy-rich stench of plants rotting began rising from the mangroves. Frequenters spoke of floating fish carcasses and pelican droppings. And it was all because late last year a stiff breeze heaved a wall of sand against the inlet and closed its mouth, blocking water flow. Dredging work that had been in the pipeline for months became an emergency overnight.

Elected officials, engineers, ecologists and leaders from nearby communities all jumped up at once. They tangled in county chambers over how best to start dredging and accused each other of delaying the process. How soon could the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sign off? Do we even have dredgers in place? Factions emerged, approximately divided between those with boats and those without boats. Boaters wanted a channel 80 feet wide. Conservationists objected, saying 40 feet was plenty and would harm fewer numbers of whatever was still alive in the sand. Clam Pass, the local emblem of untouched Gulfshore beauty, was instantly politicized.


Before county workers began dredging in early March, visitors to Clam Pass would leave shovels for the next person who came along to dig a little bit more.

“If it gets any worse,” MacKay told his son on holiday in Naples, “we’re going to dig this out.” A day later: sandpocalypse, plastic shovels, citizen dredge brigade.

“It can’t wait for a lengthy, fractured decision-making process to work itself out,” MacKay said by phone one evening. Amateur excavators, meanwhile, continued the dig, feeding a trickle of Gulf water like an IV drip to a sickly ecosystem.

Nature has no bureaucracy. If you are a small fish, you may be eaten, in season or out-of-season, and the big fish needs no license. That is the hierarchy of nature. The hierarchy of people, however, is permitting. Applications and governing boards are our social contract.

But it has not always been this way. For most of the 19th century, the federal government stayed out of environmental regulation. Then Congress decided that people and businesses should be restricted from doing just anything they wanted to America’s waterways. Instead, lawmakers agreed, citizens must appeal to a supreme body of engineers before undertaking any sort of dredging, filling or dumping of refuse. This became the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899. Thus, environmental politics was born.

In Southwest Florida, it could almost be said that all politics is environmental politics, since almost everything here has to do with replacing nature with concrete. In Lee County, where mining is hot, rural residents of Corkscrew Road are demanding a stop to proliferation by fill-dirt-hungry contractors. And on a quiet corner of Marco Island, the well-heeled denizens of a private neighborhood called Hideaway are losing beach and asking for taxpayer help to stop the rising waters. Elected leaders have found themselves wedged between interests.

The Clam Pass saga has been one of the most entertaining. Andrew McElwaine, who runs the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, has been watching it play out from his office off Goodlette Frank Road. “A six-year-old doesn’t need a Florida Fish and Wildlife permit to dig in the sand,” he says with relish. “Here was a spontaneous, grassroots activity.”

This barely concealed delight is coming from a guy who has spent the last two decades of his life trying to prod the massive governments of Pennsylvania and, since 1999, Florida in a greener direction. All he wants are thoughtful, sustainable environmental policies—and as much of Florida’s $70 billion budget as he can wrest from the Legislature’s grip. He considered it a blow, for example, when last year only $30 million went to Everglades restoration. What a treat, then, to see people united under $4.99 plastic toy shovels.

The legacy of the Rivers and Harbors Act is that Collier County cannot just start digging out the pass. It first needs a nod from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Fort Myers, which did not respond to a request for an interview.

Officials there have the last word. But the unofficials with their toes in the sand will feel the effects of whatever the Corps of Engineers decides, whenever it decides. Residents in the Seagate community have boats docked in their backyards, but their gate to the sea is barred. For them, a dredging permit can’t come soon enough.

“Mother nature has the upper hand,” 70-year-old Pelican Bay resident and daily dredger Ron Bluestein tells me, his fists full of lawn tools.

Zach Patterson graduated from Naples High and spent his summers on the beach at Clam Pass. I met him recently on the back of one of those eight-seater golf cart buggies that shuttles visitors from the parking lot to the beach and back. Now 21, Patterson remembers when you could swing off a rope and splash down into the brackish bay. These days, the rope hangs over a pile of sand.

“It didn’t smell nearly as bad. It had a distinctive smell to it because it’s just mud and mangroves, but not like this,” he recalled like a wistful old-timer, whiffing pelican waste and rotting marshland. “I wish we could do something about it.”

At the beach, Patterson laid down a towel for his fiancé, then jumped into the trench.

On Marco Island, parts of Hideaway Beach are eroding at rapid rates as residents of the private enclave try to convince county officials to help pay for infrastructure improvements that would stem the tides.

The irony of clam pass is that 20 miles to the south, a place called Hideaway Beach is in dire need of sand. “If you look out my window, straight ahead of me is the beach,” says Erik Brechnitz, a 17-year resident of the 5000 building, one of a row of high-rise condominiums perched between Royal Marco Way and the Gulf of Mexico. “If you look to the right, there is no beach.” That would be fine, except usually there is.

When the tide is highest and the northwestern winds pitch waves just right, “that’s when it starts lapping in the garage,” Brechnitz says. In his time here, he believes the beach erosion has never been so bad.

Brechnitz is also the chairman of the Marco Island Special Tax District Board, a five-man team (no women are currently serving) that decides how much residents should pay to keep their beach looking nice. As they watched it melt away, they decided only one thing could maintain their virginal shore: T-groins.

Yes, the T-groin, an environmental engineer’s term for a “massive floppy tube that lies on the sand like a beached whale.” These cost about $500,000 apiece and dull the punch of waves. The project’s total price tag is around $2.35 million; the tax district says it can put up about $1.4 million. The rest, nearly $1 million, Hideaway Beach residents are hoping the county will grant them.

Despite the fact that nobody but the Hideaway hidden can see the beach from land, Brechnitz says “there is clearly a public interest in this project.” Sand from his beach, he explains, frequently clogs Collier Creek, and then the county has to pay for the dredging. This way, the sand might stay put.

Donna Fiala calls herself “kind of the green one on the commission.” She spoke frankly to me for several minutes, bashing some of the Clam Pass players and the elected officials she says so frequently fail the environment, then added, “I hope I don’t jeopardize anything by being so honest.”

On Hideaway Beach, she said, by email, that “for some reason the newspapers keep saying that [tourism] dollars are going to re-nourish Hideaway, but never mention what they are really being used for—if they are received. With Hideaway about to re-nourish its own beach, the City of Marco feels an urgency to get the structures”—the T-groins—“in place.”

At least one commissioner, Tom Henning, has turned up his nose at using tax money for a private re-nourishment job. County commissioners have asked state Attorney General Pam Bondi for her opinion on the legality of such a move, and at last check, haven’t received word from Tallahassee.

By no means an environmentalist, Michael Bray is still one of many fighting to keep mining from increasing in the DRGR in rural Lee County. For him it's as much about quality of life as it is the planet. He's tired of the dump trucks on Corkscrew and the blasting shaking his house.

Michael Bray’s house is where you want to be at the end of the world, when the heavens crash down and the seas rise up. “This house is CBS,” says Bray, an ex-cop from Hialeah. “Concrete, block and stucco.” Gray and angular, it was obviously built with a hurricane or two in mind.

And yet, when the rock quarry up the road blasts the earth, the whole house rattles. “It shakes like a dish rag.” And when the trucks rumble up and down Corkscrew Road, loaded with limestone for construction fill (think road beds), “it makes you sick.” Bray spits the words out.

Here, between Immokalee and Estero, is a place called the Density Reduction/ Groundwater Resource area, the DRGR. The name means that where Bray lives, and has lived for 27 of his 80 years, very few other people are allowed to reside, what amounts to about one house per 10 acres. It also means that most of the land that isn’t being lived on must be used for wetland conservation to protect the state’s precious resource, freshwater.

In the spaces in between, county officials allowed for a few other things: citrus groves, golf courses and mines. “Mining within the DRGR is one of the most important resource areas for mine-quality rock in Florida,” Lee County experts wrote to stakeholders in 2007. This is mostly because of court-ordered restrictions on mining in Miami-Dade County in that year. Now, the demand for construction is heating up and with it the demand for Lee and Collier county fill.

As the requests for new mines roll in, and profit-seeking Corkscrew Road neighbors sign on to host them, the anti-mining crowd becomes louder. “NO NEW MINES,” reads one bright yellow and black roadside warning. Not exactly a warm neighborhood welcome. For residents like Bray, a pro-business kind of guy who scorns “tree-huggers,” the trucks are a personal nuisance. “They’re saying like they’ve got 200 or 300 loads going down the road a day. Well, I counted them,” he says. And apparently, his daughter confirms, he did, sitting outside one day several years ago on his porch, from 5:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. “It’s actually something like 700 loads.” For conservationists, the prospect of new quarries dotting the landscape of the DRGR is deeply worrisome.

“When you dig a hole in the ground, you’ve totally lost that habitat,” says Nancy Payton, a Florida Wildlife Federation field representative in Southwest Florida. “The mines also draw down the water. They screw up the wetlands around them.”

As I talked to people about Clam Pass and Hideaway and the DRGR, I often asked them a question along these lines: Instead of elected officials, why don’t we just let some experts—a few ecologists and an engineer— make the decision that best serves the environment? I found that almost no one liked that idea.

One was Jim Coletta, the Collier County Commission’s most recent retiree. This guy is really retired (so retired he bought a 34-foot RV to drive around in this summer), and he is grumpy about the current state of things. For example, he said he “had higher hopes for this new commission” but that, instead, “it seems like there’s a concerted effort to undo everything that we’ve accomplished in the last four or five years.” And yet, even though he scoffs at the clunky handling of Clam Pass and Hideaway Beach, his faith in the system of democratic environmental policymaking is untarnished. That’s because “the environment is only part of the issue,” he says matter of factly. “There are people to be served.”

Meanwhile, at the Clam Pass trench, the people keep shoveling sand. But they’re getting tired and want better tools. A seventh grader suggested the fire department rig a pump from the Gulf to the mangroves. Someone passing by allegedly offered to smuggle in a front loader. Not everyone approves. (One Russian man, infuriated by the reports of people undoing an act of nature, told one digger, “God did this and how dare we.”) But many are awed by the groundswell project. And some have even speculated that the effort has embarrassed the county into swifter action.

“I can’t say that I had any intended goal of inspiring an uprising or putting a spotlight on a broken system,” says MacKay, the original digger. But that’s what happened. A reminder to the permit-granters there are people to be served.

Editor’s note:  Collier County commissioners approved a dredging request to be sent to the Army Corps for Clam Pass. The work began in early March just as this story was published.


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