Log in Subscribe

Museum should display wetlands and other artifacts of a Florida that’s fast disappearing


Dear Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd,

I am writing to you about some ideas I had for one of your museums.

As you know, Tallahassee is home to more than just the Florida State Capitol (congrats on ridding it of the recent infestation of lobbyists). It’s also the home of the Museum of Florida History, which exists to show visitors that lots of interesting stuff happened here before Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

The museum attracts 55,000 people a year to view its 46,800 artifacts — or rather it did until 2022, when it closed for repairs. Turns out water was leaking down into the museum, imperiling the cool displays such as a mastodon skeleton found in Wakulla Springs. Nobody in Tallahassee likes leaks, except the press.

Your agency, which operates the museum, announced last week that because of the renovations, it will remain closed until 2026. Whew! I sure hope nothing historic happens in Florida between now and then! Especially nothing controversial about how we teach history, right?

In the meantime, though, you’ve said you want us Florida citizens to tell you what we’d like to see displayed in the museum. There’s an online survey for anyone to pitch their ideas.

I’d like to see more of an environmental emphasis. So please consider this list my contribution to the museum’s curation.

I consulted a few experts and came up with a few things that are important to Florida’s existence but may soon cease to exist themselves. Some may even disappear in the next two years, given the way Florida seems to be heading lately.

Wetlands vs. golf course water hazards?

The first item on my list: An exhibit about our rapidly vanishing wetlands.

Every decade since the 1950s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publishes a report on the status and trends of the nation’s wetlands. Usually, the news is about as optimistic as the old “Hee Haw” sketch about gloom, despair and agony.

The one time it was not, in 2006, the feds had fudged the numbers to claim the wetlands were increasing. It turned out the “increase” was because they were counting retention ponds and golf course water hazards as swamps.

When the feds put out their latest report last week, you could tell they were NOT counting golf course water hazards this time.

The report documented a loss of 670,000 acres of swamps and marshes in the most recent decade they checked — an area about the size of Rhode Island. Worse, the rate of loss has accelerated by 50 percent since the previous report.

Only Alaska has more wetlands than Florida, but we’ve been doing our best to get rid of ours for a century or more. We’ve been replacing them with those retention ponds and golf course water hazards, or just paving right over them.

That’s bad because wetlands filter water pollution, soak up floods and provide habitat for important species. Concrete, surprisingly, does none of those things.

The pace of Florida wetlands destruction sped up in late 2020 when the Trump administration, on its way out the door, allowed Florida to take over issuing federal wetlands permits. This was a consummation for which Florida developers had devoutly wished and worked toward for 20 years.

Their goal was to have those permits shooting out of the Florida Department of Environmental Foolishness – er, excuse me, Protection – about as fast as the candies rolling off the assembly line in “I Love Lucy.”

Fortunately, a federal judge ruled last month that the way the DEP set up its permitting process was illegal and would have to stop. Developers have been whining about that stoppage ever since, and last week a member of Congress even got into the act.

Congressman Aaron “Great for the Heart” Bean, R-PaveOverEverything, is the former mayor of Fernandina Beach and a former member of the Florida House. On his campaign website, Bean boasts that he “rescued a beloved Putt-Putt golf business in the community from going under.”

Perhaps that’s why Bean seems more enamored of golf course water hazards than actual wetlands. He stuck an amendment onto someone else’s bill to override the federal judge and put the DEP back in its illegal business of rapidly issuing wetlands permits.

He told his colleagues this was necessary because “thousands of projects” are on hold now – or rather, as he put it quite dramatically, “they’re on HOOOOOOOLLLLD!” He didn’t mention it, but two of those projects would have doomed the Florida panther. (There’s already a panther in the museum or I would include them in this list.)

Bean’s meddling probably will not work, thanks to a veto threat from the Biden Administration. But it’s a sign that the people who want to substitute concrete for every swamp, marsh and bog that’s left in Florida are trying every tactic possible to get that runaway conveyor belt running again.

I’d devote at least a corner in the museum to showing off the wetlands that once covered millions of our acres. Maybe we can even use the water leaking in from the plaza to keep it wet.

Our most common contaminant

Speaking of wet, how about a display that features our once-clean waterways?

I am usually happy to see Florida ranked as No. 1 in anything. But I am sorry to tell you that we’re No. 1 in something we don’t want to be: We have the most polluted lakes in the U.S. and the second-most estuaries swimming in contamination.

This epidemic of pollution is why we’ve been repeatedly plagued by toxic algae blooms in a variety of colors: Red, blue-green, brown, you name it. No offense to the Skittles folks, but this is one rainbow I do NOT want to taste.

We could be passing laws to make pollution rules stronger, require more inspections and monitoring, even shorten the timeline and increase the penalties for violators. But our fine Legislature has avoided those actions.

Thus, instead of cracking down on the politically influential polluters, our DEP is currently working on a program that would allow polluters to buy water quality “enhancement credits” to make up for their continued fouling of the waterways.

What’s worse, the measurements would be based on computer models, not on actual water samples. Florida’s computer modeling has already done a terrible job with state water permits, because it’s based on false assumptions.

The water permit models assume that the aquifer flows at a steady rate through layers of sand and gravel. What’s actually beneath our feet is a honeycomb of limestone. It’s full of holes both big and small, and the water sometimes shoots through as if sprayed by a firehose.

The model has already been a disaster for Florida’s water quantity, lowering the flow of our fabulous springs. Now, with this “credits” scheme, we’re on the verge of spreading that to water quality too.

If the DEP approves this scam, pollution and toxic algae will be a constant problem for our rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries and springs. The DEP is asking people to comment online on this idiotic scheme, so I hope there’s time to avert it. Unfortunately, the most common contaminant we have in Florida is the grease regularly applied to the skids on such pro-pollution plans.

This is why I am proposing an exhibit about one of our pre-polluted springs, with water gurgling up from underground that’s so gin-clear you can see every detail of the glowing sandy bottom. That way visitors will understand why Marjory Stoneman Douglas called them “bowls of liquid light.”

Maybe we can have that exhibit flow into one that I’d like to put over near the mastodon, one about our marvelous manatees.

Sayonara, sea cows

Anyone who relishes wild Florida knows manatees as magnificent creatures that help to spread seagrass throughout our waterways. Did you know that their nearest evolutionary relative is the elephant? Hence my idea of putting a manatee display by the mastodon.

Not long ago, we had more than 6,000 manatees around Florida. But then our pollution and toxic alae blooms combined to kill off tens of thousands of acres of the seagrass they eat.

Some 2,000 of them died, many from starvation. Many of the ones that survived suffer from malnutrition, which is likely to hurt reproduction rates.

When I asked Patrick Rose of the Save the Manatee Club how the sea cows are doing now, he told me that they’re better.  However, he said, “I would not say (the die-off) is concluded because the causes that created the crisis are still a major future threat.”

For the museum, I recommend a continuous video loop of healthy manatees cavorting in a spring and splashing around as they eat.

Then there’d be a manatee skeleton on display, to show how so many wasted away to skin and bones because of us.

Afraid of the dark

Mr. Secretary, do you remember when Nickelodeon had a scary anthology show for kids called “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” I think all of Florida’s developers must have seen it and been scared out of their wits by it.

I say this because they’re doing everything they can to light up the night all over Florida.

Wherever there’s a rural area that’s far enough from the cities to be dark at night, they go to work, planting something that will shine like a beacon. It could be houses, stores, an office park, or all three. But whatever it is, it will eclipse the moon and stars with a plethora of streetlights, porch lights and headlights.

Frequently, these light-em-up heavyweights persuade local politicians to go along with their plans. Is there an observatory run by the University of Florida in a particularly dark corner of Levy County? Then the county commission will vote to approve opening a noisy, well-lit sand mine next door.

Or let’s say there’s a rural area that’s supposed to be kept that way to protect he groundwater underneath it. They will work on the local politicos to change the rules to let them build something big and bright on top of it.

And should any local governments listen to their local voters and resist this push, the developers will turn to state legislators – as you once were – to change the law and make it close to impossible to say no.

That’s why my last proposed museum exhibit will invite visitors to enter a spacious room where they’re surrounded by the silhouettes of trees. Then the docents will slowly dim all the lights. As they do a dazzling array of stars will wink on across the ceiling, just the way they used to across the skies in Florida’s rural areas.

Anyway, Mr. Secretary, let me know if you’d like me to send you some more ideas for how to accurately document our recent history. Assuming, of course, we’re still interested in that.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.