"Paving Paradise: Florida's Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss"

July 15, 2009



It began with a tip about a report from the National Academy of Sciences titled "Compensating for Wetland Losses Under the Clean Water Act." A real page turner.

Craig Pittman, who had been covering environment issues for The St. Petersburg Times for five years, was blown away by the document's indictment of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. He figured it was time to cover the statewide picture, not just report one loss at a time as wetlands disappeared.

When he checked the Corps' website, he discovered that more wetland destruction permits were being issued in Florida than in any other state and Florida had lost more wetlands than any other state. Thousands of acres had been bartered off to developers, never mind that yards in the new subdivisions could sprout cypress trees and float septic tanks.

A national policy of "no net loss" had been established in 1989. Clearly, the policy was in shambles. Wetlands in Florida were being converted to concrete jungle. More homes for people rather than alligators or panthers, more stores, more parking lots and more roads leading to more of the above. The Corps' mission: development enablers.

Although the Corps uses Geographic Information Systems to pinpoint wetlands, it didn't take long for Pittman to discover that the data were unreliable. His search for a GIS guru led to Matt Waite, a metro G.A. from one of the Times' bureaus assigned to computer-assisted reporting. The two teamed up to learn the technology and to begin the tussle for federal agency data.

Since the Corps' data were less than useful, Waite came up with a way to go after the story using satellite-imagery analysis. He had to take a couple of courses in remote sensing at the local university just to understand how to compute the number of acres lost. It took nearly a year to analyze where paradise had been paved.

The duo's investigative report ran May 22-23, 2005. Additional stories followed. Pittman and Waite won SEJ's top reporting awards in 2006 and 2007 for their exposé of the illusion of wetlands protection. The expanded book-length tale, 17 chapters with two appendices explaining the authors' complex methodology and a useful list of remote sensing sources, could have been called: "Tides of Destruction," "They Couldn't Say No," "A Landscape of Greed, Lies and Incompetence" or maybe "Swamped by Sprawl."

The reporters name names: Disney's empire over Jane Green Swamp with "It's a Small World After All" piped in; Scripps Institute initially ignoring a national refuge; universities that would be better named "mildew U.;" mega-companies, the ever notorious Wal-Mart and lots of Florida legislators cussing all the way to re-election. Even some of the good guys turn out to be bad guys. They get them all. A real plus, the book includes photos from the Times' morgue and but only two maps. I craved more maps.

"We got quite a few [letters to the editor], plus lots of e-mails, phone calls and letters sent directly to us from readers who were outraged at what we found," Pittman told me in an e-mail. "Several of those contacts became sources for the book."

The choice of the title Paving Paradise recalls the haunting '60s tune and seems better suited to the book's place in the Florida History Series, over 50 titles to date including Bill Belleville's Losing It All To Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape (2006), Julian Pleasants'  Orange Journalism: Voices from Florida Newspapers (2003) and two titles from the incomparable Al Burt: The Tropic of Cracker (1999) and Florida: Snowbirds, Sand Castles, and Self-Rising Crackers (1997). It's an impressive, must-read series.

Read Pittman and Waite's book first. Confronting the larger story in 350 pages was a near death blow for me, each page documenting another battle lost, maybe even the whole war. It's more than a legacy of hanging chads or threatened offshore drilling fouling Florida's image. Like Pittman, as a Florida native, I'm outraged daily by the senseless destruction of all that was Florida. There were only two million of us in 1945 when I was born; the state's population now nears the 20-million mark. Page one reminders of the crowd's impact are critical if anything is to be salvaged. A climate of fewer investigative reports à la the oft-seen Pittman byline threatens to erase even our memory from history.

In spite of the authors' prescribed 12-step program, recently another Pittman and Waite story's headline read: "Is more growth the solution?" Less than astute legislators were suggesting easier permits to revive the economy. Opponents pointed to the overabundance of vacant houses and letters again poured in from readers. The story is far from over. It took four years to write this book. The sequel may not take as long.

Paving Paradise provides some lessons for reporters who want to dig deep. For example, it shows that traditional reporting doesn't always cut it on the environment beat. In addition to the usual search for documents, face-to-face interviews, rewriting and endless editing, you should be prepared to learn more technology than you ever expected to master, perhaps requiring more college coursework to finally get the story. Maybe you'll end up with an award-winning series, and then a book. A really good book.

JoAnn M. Valenti, Ph.D., SEJournal editorial board and emerita professor, is back home in Tampa trying not to go down with the ship.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue

Reviewed by JOANN M. VALENTI
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