On Monday Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, will release his 2011 – 2012 state budget proposal. Until then, environmentalists across Florida are holding their collective breath to see if Scott has incorporated a proposal to close 53 state parks and six aquatic preserves. The proposal to close the parks and preserves comes from the Department of Environmental Protection itself in an effort to cut its operating budget by 15 percent, something Scott wants all state agencies to do.
The 53 state parks include the Barnacle, a 120-year-old house that sits on five wooded acres in Coconut Grove. Built in 1891 out of the lumber of wrecked ships by yacht-designer Ralph Munroe, the Barnacle House looks out on the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, one of the six preserves the DEP proposed closing.
This morning, I talked to Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, about exploding sea grass, tar balls, and the potentially “devastating effect” of deregulating Biscayne Bay.
How will closing the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve impact Miami?
LR: I don’t think this county has ever really understood what Biscayne Bay means to our economy. Everyone trashes it, takes advantage of it, but doesn’t spend the time [to protect it]. Some people are starting to realize that it is on the brink of crashing just like Florida Bay did a decade ago because of tons of algal blooms and too much nutrients. In fact, sea grass exploded and died, and that caused anoxic conditions in some areas.
If you ask any one who has lived here for a long time, you can’t catch fish anymore [in Biscayne Bay]. It’s not really as productive as it used to be. As far as shrimpers, the fishing industry, the boating industry — that’s an economy that we need to worry about.
What is the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve exactly?
LR: Anything that is not part of the [Biscayne Bay] National Park, which is only a small slice, is protected under the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve [BBAP]. We’re talking all the way from Oleta State Park down to the Keys. And they’re the ones that check on boat groundings, that make sure the police that are out there monitoring the bay actually know about the environmental laws and how to implement them. For example, there are sea-grass protection laws, manatee laws. A lot of these laws are being enforced by the local police department, and they have to be trained. So [BBAP] is responsible for that. They also review permits, like for the dredging for the expansion of the Port [of Miami]. They respond to disasters like the Gulf Oil Spill. They’ve responded to tar balls.
As we strip away these levels of protection, we’re more likely to see it ripple through our economy. That’s why people come to Miami — they either come to go on the beaches, to stay in a hotel with a view of Biscayne Bay, to go fishing, to go diving. It’s an eco-tourism industry. So I think people who own hotels and businesses in Miami should be concerned that these are the kinds of things the [Scott] administration is proposing.
DEP also proposed closing 53 state parks, including the Barnacle in Coconut Grove. How would that impact Miami?
LR: You know, it’s a slice of history, and I really feel the two [the BBAP and the Barnacle] are critical … because part of the reason why Miami is so attractive to tourists is that we have saved historic places and we have saved a slice of nature. And those are the kinds of things that, whenever there’s an economic downturn, are the first to be cut. I don’t think that’s a smart move if you’re thinking about tourism and jobs as your main interest.
With the economy still very slow and the state facing multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls, aren’t cuts like this unavoidable? Aren’t we cutting across the board?
LR: I know we’re in economic hardship, and I’m not an economist. So I can only make my own personal judgments on how hard it is to answer to the bottom line. In this case, I think the U.S. in general, and Florida especially, has made a mistake as to what gets cut first. I don’t think the environment gets the same kind of clout that other programs get. Education and the environment are always the first things to be cut, and I think we need to reevaluate what’s really driving our economy.
I think that’s the problem. We need to understand that there’s more to Florida than just development, because if you look at our past it’s been a largely development-driven economy. Now we need to attract technology, we need to start working on green energy projects, we need to understand that people come here as tourists to visit natural spaces, we need to understand the value of our water supplies, the value of other economies like fishing and boating. And here in Miami, if an ecosystem like the Biscayne Bay crashed, we would definitely experience a devastating effect like the oil spill caused Florida tourism in the panhandle.
We won’t know until Monday whether Governor Scott has accepted the DEP’s proposal, but Emerge Miami has already organized a mass bike ride through the Barnacle on Feb. 12 to give Miamians a chance to see what they stand to lose. Check out Emerge’s Facebook page in the coming days to learn more about the ride. You can click HERE for a list of all 53 parks and aquatic preserves on the DEP’s hit list.