Mark R. Howard
In 1998, not too long after I became executive editor at FLORIDA TREND, I wrote a column, “The Price of Panthers,” in which I used the Florida panther as a surrogate for the challenges Florida faces in balancing competing societal goods — growth and development vs. maintaining aspects of the state’s traditional character.
“Ask most Floridians if there’s some inherent value in having the big cats roaming around South Florida, and we’re inclined to say we like the idea,” I wrote back then. “There’s a little bit of the naturalist in all of us. In economic parlance, it’s called ‘existence value’ — we don’t want to buy a panther, may never even see one in the wild, but we attach some worth to knowing that they’re out there.
“The follow-up question — ‘How much is it worth to you?’ — isn’t so easy to answer. But we have to ask both questions because there are links between panthers and seemingly unrelated issues like taxes. And because the endangered panthers are symbols for a whole raft full of other ‘desirable’ things about Florida that we will be forced to put a price tag on over the course of the next 40 years — wetlands, other wildlife, agricultural land, clean water in our springs, even ‘my unspoiled view’ today vs. ‘your high-rise condo’ tomorrow.’”
As predictions go, my observations were hardly oracular. Florida’s history is a story of growth, sometimes slower, sometimes at its current, breakneck pace. It was no great insight to anticipate that the collisions among competing social goods would become increasingly complex, confusing and expensive.
But as I near the end of my tenure here at the magazine, that dynamic is becoming even more challenging.
A few recent examples, including this one that actually involves panthers. Collectively, we have determined that solar power-generating facilities are desirable parts of the state’s power-generating portfolio. Recently, academics at Florida Atlantic University found a collision between utility-scale solar-generating facilities in South Florida and panther habitat — the solar fields, the report says, may impede the animals’ movement between the habitats that support them. The FAU study concludes that “current permitting review methodologies … may be inadequate” — i.e., solar plants need more regulation. Meanwhile, many environmental groups and utilities say the solar fields provide terrific habitat for all manner of flora and fauna. So, how much additional regulation should there be of one good — solar power — and at what cost, in order to accommodate another good — those panthers?
Some bigger questions. The Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research (EDR) produces an annual Assessment of Florida’s Water Resources and Conservation Lands. The most recent assessment points out that “about 30% of all land in Florida is designated for conservation purposes, with eight counties already over 50%.” If the state and water management districts acquire all the land they’ve identified as worth conserving, the statewide figure jumps to more than 40%.
The cost of all that conservation (which doesn’t include planned acquisitions by federal, local and private groups) is more than $27 billion, with the state bearing most of the cost. The additional cost of maintaining those lands, once acquired, is projected at more than $104 million a year.
In its report, EDR asks the pertinent policy questions. How much conservation land is needed and for what purpose? Should the state accelerate the current pace of land acquisition? At what point does the volume of conservation acreage alter the pattern of economic growth as metro areas are forced upward rather than outward? Is this change acceptable to policymakers?
Tough questions all. But the biggest question may be whether Floridians and their representatives can become as sophisticated as the challenges — and move beyond simplistic narratives that make them feel comfortable (or keep them in office) but dodge the tough choices we face.
I recently went to a presentation at which the topic of a wastewater spill into Tampa Bay came up. Last summer, a retaining pond containing wastewater from a phosphate mine leaked, and millions of gallons of polluted water poured into the bay; the spill happened to coincide with a big red tide bloom in the Gulf and Tampa Bay.
A woman in the audience clearly believed that the spill was responsible for the intensity of the red tide last summer and was looking for validation. The company that owned the reservoir, she felt, ought to pay not just for the spill but, somehow, for red tide as well. The presenter, an environmental journalist, deferred the question to several marine scientists from the University of South Florida who were in attendance.
One scientist, clearly aware he wouldn’t be providing the woman’s desired answer, told her politely that red tide is a phenomenon not entirely understood, but that the fertilizerwater spill probably hadn’t had much to do with the emergence or severity of the summer’s red tide bloom. “It’s complicated,” he told the woman.
The woman was clearly disappointed as her narrative crumbled, but she also didn’t appear likely to abandon it in favor of a more nuanced analysis.
It is all, unfortunately, complicated — and every choice comes with a price tag.