I just finished reading Clay Henderson’s recently published book titled Forces of Nature A History of Florida Land Conservation.
I didn’t get more than a few pages into this ambitious work by one of the state’s most prominent environmental attorneys when I ran into his description of Florida as the “third-largest state in America.”
That is not the first time I had read or heard this claim. It is wildly inaccurate.
Florida is actually the 22nd largest state in the nation by area (26th largest if you include only land area).
Where it does rank third is in population. That is why Florida, whose area is less than half of Montana, the fourth-largest state in the union (and 43rd most populated), is in trouble environmentally. The threat is the result of both population growth and the decisions in Tallahassee over much of the state’s recent history not to deal very seriously with the issue.
Henderson’s account is the best when he describes in the opening chapters how keen observers of Florida’s environment understood long ago the importance of the connections among various branches of the natural world and in the conclusion when he lays out what needs to be done to save as much as we can, if only politicians can be persuaded to do the right thing.
The rest of the book can be a daunting read at times because the prose lies deep in the weeds of blow-by-blow descriptions of every environmental dispute in which the author has been involved.
If there were ever an important environmental volume that could have benefitted from better editing, this is it.
The problem with the book isn’t just the sometimes over-shared descriptions of environmental disputes and some of the disjointed narrative, but the absence of much recognition of some key battles that occurred in the heartland miles away from the mostly coastal disputes about which he primarily writes.
There is, for instance, no discussion of the decades-long fight to protect the Green Swamp that continues today (by the way, it contains the headwaters of four rivers, not two and the geologist who did important work there was Gerard Parker, not Gerald Parker), no discussion of some key battles over public ownership of inland lakes and rivers (Mobil case, anyone?, only passing mention of the events leading up to and throughout the efforts to restore the Kissimmee River or the effects of phosphate mining on the landscape and the subsequent restoration efforts that belatedly occurred after reclamation became mandatory.
Fortunately, the author included a bibliography listing many books about Florida’s environment that are worth reading that will fill some of those gaps.
In the meantime, this book further confirms Polk County voters’ decision last year to approve funding for more environmental land protection because it’s obvious from this history that if you are waiting for the current regime in Tallahassee to do anything, you may be waiting a long time and it is time we do not have.