Eco-Update: Florida for Sale? Snowmobiles in Parks?

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated November 21, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

Florida: To Save or to Sell?

I guess you should expect this from the state that simultaneously elected Bush and Gore President: Florida is doing a great job of repairing past development mistakes while allowing tourism to foment, well, the same mistakes.

In an admirable and difficult U-turn, Floridians paved the way for Everglades restoration, which is moving forward despite legislative setbacks. Downtowns are coming back to life. New rail-trails invite bikers; recovering streams attract kayakers. A few of the countless new golf courses are even environmentally benign (more or less). Offshore oil drilling is out. New rules strive to protect coral reefs.

But even as it repairs a legacy of overdevelopment, the state government is pushing for yet more of us to visit—70 million last year!—and to stay, thereby feeding the very sprawl that has caused many of the problems.

Why the duality? Herbert Hiller, a Florida preservationist and tourism commentator, has a theory: Florida, he says, has traditionally viewed tourism as a way to sell land, not to preserve it. Hiller, a tourism industry veteran, argues that Florida has been selling itself off ever since the 1880s, when dreamer-entrepreneur Henry Flagler brought his railroad down the Atlantic coast into the then-underpopulated state, selling passengers on the Florida Dream and so beginning the flood of development that continues today. Now the nation's fourth most populous state, at 16.4 million, Florida is still urging tourists to move in. At the Fort Lauderdale airport, before I even reached the baggage claim, an ad on a wall invited me to check out "AquAzul oceanfront condominiums."

Tradition is just part of it, says Hiller. Florida has no income tax, so governments must rely on sales tax revenue pumped up by tourists and on property taxes from tourists-turned-owners.

"Tourism is a great shill for land sales here," Hiller maintains. "It gets people into the store. The pitch is usually for 'resort communities.'"

The state government limits its tourism commission to the job of vigorously marketing Florida, even though the commission's own subcommittee two years ago called for it to do more—to encourage planning and land-use policies that protect what tourists come here for. The commission did issue an excellent guide to responsible travel, but geared it for new eco- and heritage tourism, as if good stewardship were just for nature and history buffs. Online, the guide's tips for visitors are hidden on the industry website ( under "new product development."

Twenty miles (30 kilometers) inland from West Palm Beach, I saw Hiller's tourism-sprawl theory in action in the new suburb of Wellington: the subdivision front line. One block was built and inhabited, the next under construction, then a tract of fresh dirt, and beyond that, raw upper Everglades bush. Fresh new street signs identified "Island Reef Drive," "Manatee Bay Lane," and "Sugar Beach Way."

I looked around. No island, no reef, no beach, no bay, no manatees. Didn't matter. The Florida Dream lived on, out here where the sewer lines defeat the saw grass. Geo-savvy tip: If you, too, want to buy a piece of Florida, don't despair. Great places remain, but do check out environmental problems—especially in local waterways—and plans for any new subdivisions nearby or along roads you would use. Warns Hiller, "The scariest words in Florida are 'Phase Two coming.'"

Snowmobiles in Yellowstone:
Interior Department Muffles Ears

Continued on Next Page >>




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