A few things we Floridians can be thankful for

Amid manatee die-off and other downers, here are some bright spots

November 25, 2021 7:00 am

An example of Florida wetlands. Credit: Julie Hauserman

Thanksgiving is always a special holiday for us Floridians. In fact, historians say the first Thanksgiving actually occurred here. That whole Pilgrim story you know from school plays, TV shows, and Publix salt-and-pepper shakers? Those guys were Johnny-come-latelies.

More than 50 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, about 800 Spanish settlers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés waded ashore at what became St. Augustine. As curious members of the native Timucuan tribe watched, the first Spaniard to set foot on dry land was Father Francisco López, who carried a cross. When Menéndez joined him, the conquistador knelt and kissed the cross.

Then they all gathered around a makeshift altar, where López conducted a mass to thank God for giving them safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean, a ceremony that Florida historian Michael Gannon called “the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

Afterward, they feasted and, at Menéndez’s invitation, the Timucuans joined in. Instead of turkey (booooring!), they dined on garbanzo stew made with pork, garlic, saffron, cabbage, and onion. The Timucuans may have brought alligator, bear, turkey, venison, oysters, turtle, catfish, or mullet. History is silent on whether the mullet was fried or smoked but, if you ask me, either way is better than a hunk of bland old turkey.

The other reason for Thanksgiving being such a special holiday in Florida is that we’ve got to try so very hard to find blessings to count.

It’s been particularly difficult this year, what with all the grim headlines we’ve seen lately. But maybe, just maybe, if we try hard enough, we can find a silver lining amid all the nimbus clouds.

One of the most depressing headlines concerned the state racking up a record-breaking 1,000 manatees dead in one year, a milestone we passed just last week. Many of them died from starvation because so much of our precious sea grass beds were wiped out.

But, on the plus side, with fewer manatees, Florida boaters can zoom around our waterways as fast as they want to! This way they can stop worrying about clobbering any of our marine mammals. That’s something speeding boaters can be thankful for, right?

Speaking of speeding, another Debby Downer headline says cars and trucks have run over 21 of our endangered Florida panthers so far this year. On the other hand, fewer panthers means fewer obstacles to building more roads and houses and stores! Our state clearly values those more than they do our official state animal, so that must be a good thing.

If you really want to feel dejected, take a gander at our state Legislature. Even on a good day, our lawmakers tend to be nuttier than a grove full of pecan trees. But recently the Key West News and the Miami Herald both reported that some unknown legislator drafted a bill that sounds completely bonkers. The goal of the bill is to abolish the city of Key West and turn over all its assets to Monroe County.

This is clearly intended as payback. Some legislator wants to slam Key West for following its voters’ support for making cruise ships take special measures to improve their environmental and health impact.

But trust me when I tell you, “Key Weird” is the last Florida city you want to mess with.

For one thing, this is a city that is older than the state of Florida (1828 versus 1845). For Florida to try to get rid of Key West is like a younger sibling, in a fit of pique, trying to abolish an older brother or sister. It’s silly.

For another, consider what happened in 1982, when the U.S. Border Patrol established a drug-search roadblock that caused a 17-mile traffic backup that hurt Keys tourism. The mayor announced that because the city was being treated as a foreign country, it would secede from the United States, forming the Conch Republic. Then the city dispatched a schooner to attack a Coast Guard cutter with water balloons, conch fritters, and stale Cuban bread.

The blockade was lifted.

How can we look for a bright side in the Legislature’s daffy attempt to punish Key West for being environmentally responsible? Maybe we can start taking bets on when the Conch Republic’s forces will attack the Capitol with water balloons, conch fritters, and stale Cuban bread.

We should also sell the cable TV rights. I would pay good money to see that.

The Okaloosa snail darter and other winners

OK, I’m just kidding about finding good things in those bad news items (well, not about watching the Conch Republic attack legislators with water balloons and stale bread). But there really are a few things that happened recently in Florida that we should be grateful about this holiday season:

  • The Okaloosa snail darter is a tiny fish about 1 to 2 inches long, and it lives only in six streams in a small area of the Panhandle — but it just accomplished something mighty big. The darter, which was put on the national endangered list in 1973, has now made a sufficient comeback for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare it’s no longer at risk of extinction, removing it from the endangered list. Mostly, that’s due to biologists at Eglin Air Force Base. Beginning in 1994, they worked hard to rebuild the darter population from an estimated 1,500 to a current high of 600,000 — and, so far, they have thwarted the natural Floridian inclination to celebrate any big achievement with a fish fry.
  • About 100 Orange County residents climbed onto a bus, rode to downtown Orlando, and poured into a recent county commission meeting waving signs that said things like “Protect Our Wildlife.” A developer wanted to build 200 new homes in their neighborhood. A year earlier, the county commission had said no, by a 4-3 vote. The residents wanted to make sure the answer was the same this time. At the latest hearing, the developer’s attorney warned the commissioners that if they rejected his plans, the county would owe him $20 million because of the Bert Harris Act. The commissioners rejected it anyway — this time, by a unanimous vote. (Maybe this will help other local governments learn to say that magical two-letter phrase, “NO.”)
  • Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (who’s running for governor) proposed a new rule aimed at reducing the amount of polystyrene foam packaging — sometimes referred to by the brand name Styrofoam — that’s used by the 40,000 businesses regulated by her department. “They might be convenient,” Fried said. “But there is a hidden danger to public health from these disposable consumer products.” Instead of foam, those businesses would use food containers made with biodegradable, safer materials like bamboo and hemp. (Now if we could just get Florida politicians to shed some of their artificial packaging, too…)
  • The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, an agency so permissive that it’s frequently referred to as “Don’t Expect Protection,” got a permit application from a North Fort Myers company to drill an exploratory oil well north of Immokalee. To my shock, the DEP rejected the application. Excuse me, I have to sit down for a minute. I got such a head rush from this! In rejecting the permit, the DEP cited the potential for harm to wildlife and water. Who knew the agency was concerned about those things! Maybe they will start applying those same standards to all the other permit applications, too.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 12,000-acre project in Martin County known officially as the C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area. The Corps and the South Florida Water Management District have been toiling away for 20 years on the Everglades restoration plan and this is the first major project to be completed. So just 67 more to go!

Picking a new climate czar

There is one more thing, dear reader, but I hesitate to bring it up. I don’t want you to overdose on good news and go staggering around acting giddy and I am not sure yet whether we can count it as a blessing, and I really don’t want to get your hopes up.

No, it’s not the announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis last week that he plans to ask the Legislature for a whole big bucketload of your money to spend on the Everglades and other stuff. Instead of details, he just handed out a one-pager summarizing his plan. That’s generally the tactic of someone who doesn’t want reporters taking a close look at what he’s got in mind.

In the past, DeSantis has thrown a lot of taxpayer dollars at environmental programs that ended up not helping the environment at all. Worse, he’s been reluctant to back up the bucks by telling his regulatory agencies to do something to stop all the pollution that has caused our water quality woes.

He wants to paste on the label of being a big-time Teddy Roosevelt environmentalist without doing the hard work Teddy did of actually protecting the environment — and he’s hoping you won’t notice the degradation of our waterways all around you.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. This is a guy whose re-election campaign is raising money by selling his balls — that is, they’re selling a pair of golf balls with his logo on them, in a package labeled “Florida’s Governor Has a Pair.” Act now and you can tuck the governor’s balls in your pocket just like any big road contractor or major polluter!

No, what I am hoping turns out to be good news is that DeSantis finally picked a new chief resilience officer, a mere 21 months after his last one quit.

DeSantis selected Julia Nesheiwat as the state’s first chief resilience officer in August 2019 — quite a turnaround from his predecessor, Rick Scott, who would sooner give up his Navy ballcap than admit that climate change was causing problems in low-lying Florida.

Nesheiwat spent six months in the newly created position, touring the state and preparing a report that outlined what we need to do to cope with a rising sea level and other climate-related problems.

Florida resilience efforts, she wrote in the 36-page report, “are disjointed.” Local governments were doing what they could, but nobody was providing standards or oversight.

“Florida needs a statewide strategy,” the report says. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn for guidance.” The need was immediate, she wrote, because “Florida’s coastal communities and regions do not have time to waste.”

But then she quit to take a homeland security job in the Trump administration and, as far as we know, her plan wound up on a shelf (or a shredder). Either way, DeSantis ignored the vacancy for nearly two years.

Now that he’s running for a second term, though, DeSantis has suddenly discovered he needs to fill this position again. I have to admit that his selection is impressive on paper: Wesley Brooks, who has a doctorate in ecology (yay!) and experience working for DEP (ruh-roh….)

Will Brooks jump on Nesheiwat’s report and start implementing her recommendations? Or will he be a mere figurehead, to be trotted out for public display whenever DeSantis wants to pretend he’s green?

One thing’s for sure. We will know the answer by next Thanksgiving.

We’ll know whether it’s one more thing we can be thankful for, or one more thing that deserves a thorough pelting with water balloons and stale bread. Now pass me some of that mullet!

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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, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. 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.