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Challenges to Conservation in Florida

Although Florida’s conservation successes are inspiring, the state faces many challenges.  Foremost among these is population growth, which leads to habitat loss and fragmentation. 

Florida’s population growth is projected to double between 2006 and 2060, and seven million additional acres will be developed by 2060. Fragmentation of large intact patches of habitat into smaller, less viable areas has dire consequences for plants and wildlife. For example, the genetic viability of Florida panthers is threatened due to habitat isolation in south Florida. Roads built to support growing human populations pose a serious hazard for black bears and many other species. Fragmentation contributes to the spread of invasive species and compromises the ability of land managers to implement ecologically essential prescribed burns. 

Land acquisition alone cannot mitigate the negative ecological effects of rapid population growth, so Florida needs new approaches, too. The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, a governor-appointed body, has been tasked with creating a smart growth plan for the next 50 years. The Rural and Family Lands Act of 2001 focuses on promoting conservation easements to preserve agricultural lands in the state. As development proceeds and new issues arise, the protection of Florida’s environment will likely require additional innovative efforts and initiatives.

Another major challenge for Florida is the spread of invasive exotic species.  There are more than 1,300 exotic plant species established and reproducing outside cultivation. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council considers about 10% of these to be invasive in natural areas and a significant threat to rare species. Left unchecked, melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, hydrilla and Old World climbing fern can totally choke out native species and natural areas. Invasive animals such as feral hogs destroy native ground cover, feral cats prey on native wildlife, and introduced species like the Burmese python prey on and outcompete native species. Millions of dollars are spent each year to control the ever-growing threat of invasive exotics in Florida.

Another threat to biodiversity is the dramatic alteration of natural fire regimes that have resulted from changes in land-use patterns since the early 1900s. Fire historically played a large role in shaping the landscape and natural floral community structure of Florida, from the frequently burned pine flatwoods and dry prairie to the infrequently burned hammocks and cypress swamps.  Florida has the highest incidence of lightning strikes in the country (Chen and Gerber, 1990), the main catalyst for natural fires. Fire suppression during the early part of the 20th century, however, caused fuels to build up to unnatural levels and led to losses of plant diversity and critical habitat for many wildlife species (Dye, 1989). Although prescribed burning is now a common management practice, liability issues associated with development and an increasing human population severely restrict its use. The result is a loss of ecological integrity, the decline of species, changes in soils, and an increased risk of catastrophic wildfires due to the buildup of unnaturally high fuel levels.

The health of Florida’s aquatic ecosystems is threatened by hydrologic disturbances such as ditching and draining, fragmentation, and water quality degradation. Water is routinely diverted from natural areas for residential and agricultural uses. In the Everglades, a human-altered hydrological regime has caused a sharp decline in ecosystem health and resulted in devastating effects to wading bird populations. Polluted agricultural and urban runoff leads to excessive inputs of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous and causes imbalances in the water chemistry.  In addition, the fragmentation of water systems has contributed to high concentrations of pollutants that affect the natural life cycles of numerous species. 

The global threat of climate change poses a particular challenge for Florida.  Because Florida is almost surrounded by low-elevation coastline, sea-level rise is a concern for coastal ecosystems.  A reasonable projection for global sea-level rise is 3 feet by 2100 (Mulkey 2007) which will certainly cause flooding and tremendous changes in coastal habitats.  The Florida peninsula is expected to become progressively more tropical as the frostline moves northward.  Government agencies and conservation organizations have begun to address these issues but are hindered by the limitations of current data models.  In 2007 Governor Crist established the Action Team on Energy and Climate Change to create the Florida Climate Change Action Plan which will include strategies to combat climate change.

Despite these challenges, the people of Florida have demonstrated their support to conserving the state’s rich natural heritage through their overwhelming endorsement of state programs and initiatives to protect the natural environment. In 1998, 72% of all voters in Florida approved an amendment to the state's constitution stating that Florida values its environment and will protect it. Environmental land management continues to receive both increased attention and much-needed funding.  In 2008 the Florida Legislature authorized a 10-year renewal of Florida Forever, the state’s marquee environmental land acquisition program. Through the combined effort of committed individuals and organizations, Floridians are working to conserve the health of their natural environment for future generations. 


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