All the gorgeous beaches that belong to Florida’s taxpayers face a great threat: climate change

May 28, 2020 7:00 am

North Florida beaches including this one at Grayton Beach State Park were among those threatened by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Credit: Florida State Parks

Last week, Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach,” announced his selection as the best beach in the United States — one in the Florida Panhandle, Grayton Beach State Park.

“It’s some of the finest white sand in the world,” said Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. “The first time I saw it I felt like I had to put on sunglasses it was so bright. Some people thought it was snow,” Leatherman told the Associated Press. “I said, ‘No that’s not snow!’ The sand is the highest quality in the world. It’s pure quartz crystal.”

Another Florida beach, one near Clearwater, made Leatherman’s top 10 – Caladesi Island State Park. That two Florida beaches would make the top 10 is no surprise. He’s been picking the top U.S. beaches every year since 1992, and generally there’s always at least one Florida beach on the list.

Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.” Credit: Florida International University.

“In general, Florida beaches rate very high,” Leatherman told me in a 2017 interview. “There are no bad major public beaches in Florida.” He especially likes the fact that so many Florida beaches are protected from development because they’re part of Florida’s state park system.

Florida is best known for the artificial wonders of its theme parks. After all, our most universally recognized piece of architecture is Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World.

But our state parks show you what’s really special about Florida — rivers for paddling, springs for swimming, forest trails for hiking and horseback riding.

You can find manatees splashing at Blue Spring State Park and ghost orchids hidden amid the thick foliage of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. There are black bears at Wekiwa Springs State Park, bison at Paynes Prairie State Preserve State Park and, of course, at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, professional mermaids.

Florida’s park system is the only one to win the National Recreation and Parks Association gold medal for excellence four, count ‘em, FOUR times. The parks are popular, too. More than 25 million people visit our state parks every year.

So you’d think state officials would want to take better care of this gold mine.

Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Credit:

But in the eight years that Rick Scott was governor, there were multiple attempts to alter the parks – to add golf courses, to allow hunting, to sell ad space on the hiking trails. Fortunately, all those efforts came to naught, and Scott’s successor has not made any similar attempts at “fixing” something that’s not broke.

Meanwhile, all the gorgeous beaches that belong to Florida’s taxpayers face an even greater threat that neither Scott nor Gov. Ron DeSantis have done anything to alleviate: climate change.

Most of the state is a low-lying peninsula with water on three sides, so scientists have classified Florida as extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Because our landscape is so flat, even a small increase in sea level can cause big problems with our beaches. A one-foot rise in the sea level would move the shoreline 2,000 to 10,000 feet inland, and every hurricane’s storm surge would reach further and further inland.

“Florida is ground-zero for sea level rise and must be prepared for 3 feet of sea level rise,” a Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman told me last year.

Scott, you may recall, avoided all mention of climate change and its effects on Florida, despite owning a waterfront mansion in Naples. DeSantis has also shied away from saying those two words, at least where some reporter with a tape recorder could catch it, but he did appoint someone to be the state’s chief resilience officer. Then she quit and has not been replaced.

Julia Nesheiwat had no background in climate science and spent only six months on the job, but she did produce a report that spoke the truth: “Florida resilience is taking shape throughout the state but efforts are disjointed…Florida needs a statewide strategy.”

In other words, everybody’s off doing their own thing and there’s no coordination. You can see this playing out with the state park system and its beaches.

Hurricane Michael survivors after the storm. #neverforgottencoast documentary project

In 2018, when the Category 4 storm called Michael hit the Panhandle, its massive storm surge tore St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in two, creating two inlets that cut through the park and connected St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

One inlet, 20 feet deep, separated the main park area on the peninsula from the campground and nature trails. The state has had to haul in sand to fill in the gap but more than two years later still has not rebuilt the road or reopened the camping area.

Other parks have faced similar problems. Hurricane Irma’s storm surge washed away the campground at Long Key State Park and destroyed the camping and day use areas at Sandspur Beach in Bahia Honda State Park. Park officials had to choose whether to rebuild at all, and if so, whether to rebuild with something that would wash away even faster.

Earlier this year, I interviewed the head of Florida’s state park system, Eric Draper. Given how much state park property consists of beaches and shoreline, I asked, had his agency drawn up a comprehensive plan for the state parks to deal with sea level rise and other aspects of climate change?

No, said Draper. This task was being left to the individual parks as they revise their individual management plans or deal with rebuilding after storm surge damage. In other words, it’s being done piecemeal, just like everything else involving climate change in Florida.

But hey, I’m sure everything will turn out fine if we postpone thinking about this problem right now.

Let’s wait to do something until Dr. Beach no longer includes any Florida beaches on his top 10 list because they’ve all been washed away.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.