Florida's 'Great Mangrove Massacre' - Vistas Versus Trees

LIKE countless other waterfront-property owners in southern Florida, David Arnsby simply wanted a view.

Year after year he watched as fringes of mangroves, a thick tree with spidery roots, rose out of the bay behind his house, blocking sights of diving pelicans and shimmering sunsets. Laws protected the trees from easy trimming because of their ecological importance.

Then Republicans took over the state legislature, and Mr. Arnsby found relief. By June they had passed, and the governor signed, a law relaxing restrictions on cutting the estuarine plant.

Local papers dubbed what followed as the Great Mangrove Massacre. Property owners and developers from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic turned wild fringes into neatly manicured hedges or bulldozed them outright. The extent of the damage - more than 400 sites have been cut in this area alone - is now the hottest dispute in the state.

What happened in Florida provides a cautionary tale for Washington, where Republicans are seeking to rein in the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and soften a number of landmark environmental laws carefully constructed over three decades.

If the motive is right - to free property owners from bigfooted bureaucracy - the results can still be disastrous.

"The intent behind the legislation was to provide a balance between property rights and ecology," says Ken Jones, a state legislative staffer who helped draft the new Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act. He admits it may have tipped the scale too far in the other direction. "Certainly, the extent of the trimming was a disappointment in some areas."

The redwood may be grander, the autumn maple more arresting, but few trees are as ecologically important as the mangrove, whose red, black, and white species outline the bays and saltwater marshes of southern Florida.

MANGROVES are the cornerstone of the estuary. Their leaves are part of a food chain that extends from algae to the spotted sea trout. Their fingerlike roots provide anchor for pleated sea squirts and eared ark clams. Young fish find shelter in their fringes. Endangered and migratory birds nest in their branches.

While they serve as useful buffers against hurricanes, they obscure the very thing property owners treasure: patio vistas. Mangroves can grow at a rate of three feet a year.

The battle to trim these trees has swirled for a decade. Roughly 80 percent of the original fringes are already gone, replaced by sea walls and developments. The remaining stands were long protected by restrictive state and local laws and closely guarded by environmental agencies.

For years, property owners and developers faced a costly and time-consuming permit process to trim mangroves. That may be why the new law is so lenient. GOP lawmakers say they were simply trying to rein in agencies that had manipulated the former permit rules to make trimming harder.

"The Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] gave permits to trim. But the Department of Natural Resources said there could be no trimming in aquatic preserves," says Heidi Lovett of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Committee. "The two butted heads."

The new law, however, hasn't cleared away the confusion. It allows property owners to trim mangroves that are within 75 feet of their land. Farther out, owners must have professional cutters do the work. Permits are still required, and trees can be cut no lower than six feet.

The statute supercedes all previous state and local laws, but may run afoul of federal rules such as the Endangered Species Act. Though property owners rushed to trim after the new law was enacted, some may find stiff penalties down the road if federal environmental agents determine that habitat critical to the survival of species was damaged.

Jim Beever, a state scientist who has studied on the impact of trimming mangroves, says the new law fails to take his research into account. "There is a disproportionate reduction in the reproductive capacity" of the ecosystem as a result of the trimming, he says. "There are more species listed under the state and federal endangered species laws than any other habitat."

Furthermore, local environmental agencies are still learning what they can and cannot do under the new law. When Arnsby trimmed his stand, he sought a permit from Sarasota County, which referred him to the state Department of Environmental Protection. He followed all the procedures carefully and obtained a permit without a hitch.

But when his trimmers started their chainsaws, a neighbor complained to the Sarasota County Natural Resources Department, the agency Arnsby first contacted. The county promptly put a don't-cut order on his door.

Arnsby provided his permit number, and the county backed off. But the incident still rattled him. "One reason I left England was to get away from politicians who manipulated the laws," he says. "The county was very clear that we had to go to the state. So why the cease order?"

In several areas, politicians and interest groups are rising up against the new law. Fishermen and landscape architects have joined together with city councils to seek reforms to the statute. They want clearer guidelines and limits on trimming.

Critics argue the new law is contradictory to costly conservation programs. Some mangroves targeted for public preservation, for instance, are now open to private trimming.

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