Back to Nature (Published on - Nov. 23, 2005)
Where is the edge of civilization?
Photo by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
A glimpse of old Florida today, preserved for the future.
The morning was of cool fog. We guided the canoe through the veils of mist while avoiding low hanging branches and unsuspected debris. The tannin stained waters rushed passed the canoe as the current enticed us down the river. Unseen splashes sounded in the near distance, evidence of awakening alligators hidden under cover of fog.

We sat in silence and deep breaths. No sounds of automobiles, boom boxes, telephones. We had slipped back into a lost moment in time, a place of yesteryear, a time quickly disappearing and increasingly more difficult to find, a rare moment in Florida. Where is the edge of civilization? In these wild places we can touch the heart of the earth and hear her whispers but for how long?

Take a drive on any one of Florida’s highways or county roads. You will observe that miles upon miles of open fields are being transformed into housing developments. Where once there was scrub lands, farmer’s fields, oak hammocks, wetlands, rivers, lakes and orange groves, houses soon will stand one next to the other with only a few feet between.

Florida’s highways are clogged with polluting traffic jams that are a direct result of urban sprawl that seems to happen almost by default. Roads are being plowed, enormous concrete septic fields dug, while fake lakes in geometric shapes with unnatural flora and fauna are replacing naturally occurring stream beds and ponds. A housing development pops up in one place, a road is then put in another place, followed by a shopping center accommodating the new residents and so on.

Florida depends on agriculture as its second-largest industry, but has lost roughly 8 million acres of farmland to development since 1954.

Programs are in place to help the siege on public, undeveloped, forest and farm lands such as: the Forever Florida program and Florida’s 1959 “greenbelt” law. Another program, the Rural Land Protection Act, was immobilized by legislatures when Jeb Bush vetoed $5 million for the program, which has never received funding since it passed in 2001.

And yet, according to the Negative Population Growth, Florida loses 860 acres of its forests and farmlands to development each month. Recent statistics from the Sierra and NPG show Florida is now the leading state for urban sprawl. When the Sierra Club rated cities on sprawl, Florida had the largest presence of any state.

Fort Lauderdale ranked ninth among the “most sprawled threatened cities” of 1 million or more. Orlando and West Palm Beach ranked first and fifth respectively among urbanized areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million. Pensacola and Daytona Beach were third and fifth among urbanized areas of their size.

Tampa-St. Petersburg area ranked eight out of the 100 largest U.S. Urbanized Areas by square miles of sprawl the Land Area Data derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s report on Urbanized Areas, between 1970-1990.

The American Farmland Trust Organization research offers these suggestions on its Web site:

“A process of dialogue and debate should be initiated in each locality where conversion of farmland is significant to develop long-term objectives for the land and mechanisms to share responsibility to protect it. Americans need to recognize that irrevocable decisions regarding the fate of farmland are being made every day without guidance on public priorities for the land. Urban planners should look more closely at the principles of compact growth, including building homes at optimal density, renewing inner cities and using existing infrastructure.”

Another study during Florida OverPopulation Awareness Week (Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, 2000), notes that Florida’s phenomenal population growth has been the No. 1 factor in the state’s urban sprawl.

This in-depth study explores this phenomenon, but also offers solutions for Florida’s future. Sprawl in Florida was written and is made downloadable in a free access format, by Leon Kolankiewicz and Roy Beck.

The authors write on their Web site: “(We) embarked upon this study after a literature search found that media stories, advocacy programs, governmental reports and political statements about sprawl rarely consider population growth as a factor that could be modified to reduce sprawl. This seemed surprising in light of Florida’s population nearly doubling during the period of study – from 6.8 million to 12.9 million.

“The half-century view is even more startling; The state’s human inhabitants have expanded from around 2.8 million in 1950 to around 15.6 million in 2000. The findings in this study suggest that those who would stop sprawl in Florida will need to address three levels of government: (a) local incentives that entice more people to move into particular cities, (b) state policies that attract residents from other states, and (c) federal policies that add population to Florida and the nation as a whole.”

Even as the writer, researcher and advocate for saving natural habitats, some of these statistics are overwhelming to comprehend. Furthermore the average citizen is left scratching their head in the face of such a huge plight.

Solutions are difficult to surmise. Get involved. Take action. Learn about what’s happening in your own back yard. Read reports such as those published by Sierra on solving urban sprawl.

Sierra Club advises, “Sprawl happens on a project-by-project basis. One bad decision after another results in a poorly planned, quickly expanding community that ends up suffering from increased air and water pollution, traffic congestion, declining cities and towns and loss of its historical identity. Educated and active community members are the greatest defense against sprawl.”

Sprawl threatens wildlife. Sprawl permanently destroys vital habitats that wildlife depends upon. One decision, one person, one acre, one letter, one phone call, one e-mail, one habitat, one panther, one bear, one eagle, one nation, one cause, one alone canoeing upon a foggy river away from civilization, lost moment in time, a place of yesteryear, a time quickly disappearing and increasingly more difficult to find back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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