MAXWELL:  Spoil paradise, and pay

6/22/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In her 1984 best-selling book The March of Folly, historian Barbara W. Tuchman discusses a problem that imperils human existence. It is one with which Florida politicians at all levels and urban planners should become familiar, lest we lose the quality of life we have come to expect in paradise.

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests,” Tuchman writes. “Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.

“In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

Granted, Tuchman explores military war, but her message is germane in this discussion because many Floridians also are waging a war, one against the environment.

In the Sunshine State, gangs of fools have back-filled our swamps, bulldozed our trees, butchered our mangroves, gouged our shorelines and paved over our grasslands, all in the name of development _ a policy inimical to our long-term interests.

The results of this greed-driven madness can be seen everywhere. But South Florida is a living museum to our environmental folly, as demonstrated by the haphazard, unrestrained development in Broward County that has swallowed up nearly all of the Everglades south of Interstate 75 and west to U.S. 27.

Mammoth residential enclaves with names such as Weston, Chapel Trail and SilverLakes mushroom out of what used to be the unspoiled domain of alligators, deer, water fowl, insects, fish, Indians, Crackers and familiar “colored” fishermen.

The sounds of wild creatures have been replaced by the voices of children on playgrounds. And the natural activities of natives eking out livelihoods have been replaced by the unnatural roar of lawn mowers and, of course, by the drone of cranes, backhoes and hammers.

Yes, life is “good” in these gated subdivisions. But how much longer will the shine last? On the social level, from the sprawling Kendall development in Dade County to densely populated Weston near Fort Lauderdale, many public schools, some newly built, have too many students. In southwest Broward alone, where construction is most intense, about a dozen schools are overcrowded.

According to the Miami Herald, students “study in cafeterias and offices that serve as classrooms, or in portables on land once reserved for ball fields.”

While school overcrowding is an irritant, the real problem is water _ either too little of it or too much of it. This situation is life-threatening and is the direct result of cronyism, cowardice, fear, stupidity.

South Florida Water Management District officials say that by the year 2010 water supplies will be at an all-time low, frequent shortages will be routine and restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars will be tighter than ever.

On the other side, however, an overabundance of water will be a major problem as more and more pavement and rooftops prevent rainfall from flowing into the Everglades and other natural sites and seeping into the aquifer. This excess water will collect in yards, in parking lots, in posh bedrooms. Following major storms, flooding is a certainty.

“(South Florida) got piecemealed to death by development after development,” Nathaniel Reed, noted conservationist and a former water management board member told the Herald. “They just kept on coming, and nobody ever looked at the area as a whole. These developments may be pleasant places to live, but we have a huge dilemma, and it’s still ahead of us.”

How did we get into this mess?

When thousands of development applications poured into the Broward Planning Council offices during the mid-1980s, only state Sen. Howard Forman, D-Pembroke Pines, then a county commissioner, had the courage to publicly oppose the land-use changes that gave builders the green light to destroy the environment.

“The facts were there, but even the staff did not say a thing,” Forman told the Herald. “They were too afraid of losing their jobs.”

This was a time when vast agricultural tracts, especially cow pastures, were considered eyesores and liabilities and were sold to developers for a pittance. This land is gone forever, buried beneath miles and miles of sewer lines, roadways and assorted kitsch.

And now, the water management district, fully aware of the looming crisis, struggles to establish a 66,000-acre buffer between suburbia and the Everglades. People need to be protected from flooding, and the Everglades need to be protected from pollution that comes with human habitation.

Experts predict that “build out” will occur in southwest Broward by the year 2020, when the population will have tripled. Will residents have enough water to drink? Many officials do not think so.

Enlightened self-interest must become part of the South Florida landscape because desperate efforts, such as man-made wetlands, will not solve our problems. Attitudes toward Florida must change. Residents, most of them from somewhere else, must learn that we cannot continue to rape the state.

We must protect paradise or lose it.