A far more sinister natural threat, which has been compounded, perhaps direly so, by man's actions, is one the boomers and boosters never mention: hurricanes. "The Gulf Coast and southeast Florida are the most vulnerable areas in the United States," says Dr. Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables. "Yet we have hundreds of thousands of people living on islands and on coastal tidal lands who don't know their homes will literally go underwater someday. Part of the problem is that there has been no big bad hurricane in Florida since the enormous population increase on the coast." Reed agrees, though he also suggests that a major storm could be an important educational experience. "Only then, perhaps, will land developers learn that they cannot build on tidal lands," he says. "Only then will those who fought this no longer be considered lunatics."
Fortunately, there are a number of less drastic ways to change the state's direction. The most ambitious environmental scheme in all of Florida is the one to save the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay in the panhandle. In terms of water flow, the Apalachicola River is the ninth-largest in the U.S. It runs 107 miles from the Georgia line to Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The system is incredibly rich: largemouth bass, striped bass, sea trout, flatfish, Atlantic sturgeon, blue crabs, shrimps and oysters. In fact, 80% to 90% of all Florida's oysters come from the bay, and the fisheries industry, a multimillion-dollar-a-year business, is basic to the local economy. The Apalachicola basin is one of the most lightly populated areas in Florida. Franklin County, which lies on both banks of the river and bay, has a population of less than 7,000, and the oystermen and fishermen don't want to see their livelihoods buried beneath a tidal wave of condominiums and pollution. The county clerk, Bobby Howell, has been outspoken about the dangers of overdevelopment, though he admits he didn't always feel that way. "When they put up that bridge to St. George Island [a narrow, 33-mile-long island in Apalachicola Bay] in 1962, I was just as crazy to see it built as I am now to see it blown into the bay," Howell says. "I was convinced that financially we'd be paying lower taxes. I was so narrow-minded I could see through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time. All these damn fools that don't want the bridge, I said then, don't have any sense. I was the damndest fool of all. My philosophy changed. You know, men change their minds, fools never do."
Howell's environmental education began in earnest in the early 1970s when he met Florida State's Skip Livingston. Livingston had come down from Tallahassee to examine the river and bay, and he was so beguiled by them that he began bringing researchers with him. In the ensuing years, Livingston and some 850 researchers, mostly undergraduates and graduate students at Florida State, have studied the river and the bay from top to bottom, from the basic productivity of grass flats to the impact of forestry on the watershed. A year after Livingston began his research, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it had plans to erect as many as four dams on the river; shippers upstream in Georgia and Alabama wanted to make the river a barge canal. Livingston became the ringleader in the fight to stop any dams from being built. "Their plans were based on rotten economics and rotten environmental facts," he says. "We had the facts, and we used them. We took polls, and they showed that more than 70% of the people living along the river and bay didn't want the dams. So the Corps said it would only put in one dam, and when we showed that was uneconomical, too, the Corps withdrew. We beat the Engineers for the time being. You can never say you've beat the Corps for good, because all it does is put the plans in a drawer and then come back at you again. But I'm hopeful."
Excited by the richness of the Apalachicola system, Livingston and Howell went to Washington in 1974 to see John R. Clark, senior ecologist at The Conservation Foundation. Clark was fascinated by the Floridians' plan to save the Apalachicola system, and he put them on to officials in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA. "Howell spoke eloquently," Livingston says, and their hopes began to burgeon. The next year, the state of Florida spent $8 million under the Endangered Lands Act to acquire 20 miles of key river frontage extending four to five miles inland on both banks. In 1979 Congress established the Apalachicola River and Bay Estuarine Sanctuary. The sanctuary now encompasses 192,000 acres, including all the vital wetlands that fringe the bay, and there are more land acquisitions in the offing. All oystering, fishing and utilization of other renewable natural resources can continue, while the sanctuary board, on which Livingston sits, conducts research and education programs. "We're now going to work with the whole Franklin County school system, right from kindergarten on up, to make the sanctuary a regular part of the kids' education," says Livingston. "We're going to teach students how their system works. We're going to train them as environmental managers, and actually have a growth industry in education and research through the sanctuary. This is the cleanest industry we can think of, and we're going to export this idea of people having control of their own fate to the world at large."
At present, Franklin County and other counties along the river and bay are preparing master zoning plans in accordance with state law. Seeking to keep the population stable, Franklin is considering a limitation on building sites in areas deemed critical to the basic natural resources. Developers are kicking up a fuss, particularly those who own property in the middle of St. George Island. "Bad development there could wipe out a fourth of Florida's oysters," says Livingston. "We've mapped out every blade of grass, every fish, every crab in the area. We know all the important areas in the bay from the standpoint of productivity." There's court wrangling on the issue now, but Livingston is optimistic that the Apalachicola system will be saved. "I really would love to see this happen," he says. "Just one place where we can see what it used to be like. Well, I think we're going to do it."