Guest opinion: Post-Irma: Conservation agenda more vital than ever
What is the best defense against a raging hurricane? In addition to a superb team of first responders, smart infrastructure and advance planning, the answer, in part, is preserving natural systems. The extensive mangrove forests of Southwest Florida were essential in protecting portions of the coast from more extensive storm damage by holding back water and absorbing the sheer force of the wind and surge of the ocean. In addition, wetlands, when healthy and intact, can store up to 1.5 million gallons of water – per acre. Not only do wetlands store water, but equally important is that they treat water by cleaning it before it flows into other bodies of water.
So, in the midst of the post-Irma recovery, the news that the Lee County Board of County Commissioners are finalizing a deal for the purchase of Edison Farms is great news for all of us. The public acquisition of the almost 4,000 acres of primarily wetlands that comprise Edison Farms is a historic milestone in efforts to preserve the remaining core ecological assets in our region; assets that are necessary not just for nature and its inhabitants, such as the endangered Florida Panther, woodstorks and other magnificent wading birds, but for people and our quality of life.
Southwest Florida’s rapidly increasing development and conversion of natural lands to hard surfaces has come at a price – including contributing to extensive flooding in local communities. By investing $42.3 million of available public funds from the Conservation 20/20 land acquisition program, Lee County is capitalizing on natural infrastructure that provides innumerable benefits, such as flood protection for downstream communities, improved water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Significant in scope, the Edison Farms acquisition highlights the continued need for local governments and the state to employ conservation land acquisition and restoration as one of the tools to help address our water quality, water supply, and flooding issues.
The lessons from Irma should be clear for all of us – we need to invest more in our natural systems, not less.
Protecting and restoring natural systems enhances nature’s ability to protect us and to continue providing essential services to our coastal and inland communities.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida recently released its Estuaries Report Card for the region. One of its key findings is that the quality of our estuaries, and the species that depend upon them, is greatly impacted by upstream development patterns. The more lands are converted from natural habitat to development, the more we open ourselves to further degradation of our already stressed estuaries.
The Conservancy commends the Lee County Commissioners and the private land interests in preserving Edison Farms. There are two immediate opportunities to further strengthen natural systems as a defense against future storms, enhance estuary health and protect wildlife habitat:
* We urgently appeal to Collier County Commissioners to revive the Conservation Collier program, and to move forward with a Conservation Collier-specific referendum for the public to approve in the fall of 2018. Such county-based programs are essential for preserving key tracts of urban and rural land that provide us valuable ecosystem services in and out of storm season.
*Our local elected state representatives should take a leadership role in implementing Amendment 1 – by dedicating the largest share of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to the state’s conservation land acquisition and conservation easement programs.
Our beaches, estuaries, wetlands, wildlife, Everglades and other unique natural resources are among the most paramount distinguishing features of our region. Let’s make the necessary investment to strengthen these assets with opportunities now before us, which in turn, provide us so many benefits not only during a hurricane, but every day.
To learn more about the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s advocacy work, visit www.conservancy.org/policy.
– Rob Moher is the president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida