Impoverished North Florida should protect natural resources

Turpentine, phosphate, fish, timber, water: these are natural resources of North Florida, and they have all been depleted or declining in quality and abundance. These decimations and declines are the result of an extractive economy, and these results have not been beneficial to the people of the region.

Residents of more than 80% of all counties in the United States earn more money annually than residents of the 10 counties that line the banks of the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers. This figure rises to 85% of all counties if Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, is omitted from the list.

The effects of this impoverishment are even more pronounced than these figures suggest, as revenues from resource extraction have not been invested in institutions that would continue to benefit the region in the future. The area around Ichetucknee, for example, has no well-funded foundations and no sovereign wealth funds; instead, we have a cluster of poor rural counties.

More message from Springs Heartland:

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Why I donated land to the Alachua Conservation Trust to help the Santa Fe River

Dismantling part of the Kirkpatrick Dam would eliminate the risk of catastrophic failure

This is the result of more than a century and a half of resource extraction from North Florida without any reinvestment. This situation is similar to living off the principal of a trust fund; eventually, the original vast sum is exhausted.

An even better analogy may be the goose that lays the golden egg. In the fable, the goose could only lay one egg a day. Eager to get the eggs faster, the owner opened the goose. Such was the end of the harvest of the golden eggs.

There is an alternative to extracting our way to impoverishment. The creative economy depends on the innovative capacities of human beings rather than on the basic value of raw materials. A thriving creative economy is rooted in a particular place and is integrated with the creative and regenerative forces of nature itself.

The greatest potential sources of wealth in North Florida continue to be the land, the water, and the creative abilities of the people who live there. From the 1940s and 1950s and up to the present day, those who make the most money from land in Florida are those who first convert it from wilderness or farmland to residential or commercial use.

Subsequently, the increase in value is progressive as the buildings are sold or leased. The first-use principle continues to drive the conversion of Florida land into buildings.

After:Joon Thomas answers 20 questions for aquifer advocates

The effect on Florida’s water resources is less visible. Florida’s northern counties are blessed with the Floridian Aquifer, a vast underground supply of fresh water. But in our greed to extract that water faster than it can be replenished, we open the legendary goose in slow motion.

The aquifer has been on a path of steady decline since the 1930s, but this aquifer provides agriculture, drinking water, domestic use and industrial consumption – and it supports our world famous springs as well as rivers and Florida wetlands. As unimaginable as it may seem, we are consuming water at a rate faster than Florida’s heavy rainfall can replenish it. Without enough water, Florida’s ecology plunges into dysfunction, failing to support both the natural environment and human needs.

In all places, but especially in rural areas like North Florida, it is imperative that the creative economy be viewed as the totality of three elements: 1) the regenerative capacity of natural systems, 2) the needs of those who live in the region, and 3) the ingenuity and creativity of people applied to all economic sectors.

A creative economy approach in North Florida would provide a foundation for making sound economic decisions. Implementing this approach can begin with a few key questions and assessments:

What Are North Florida’s Key Resource Assets?

What decision-making systems are needed to safeguard North Florida’s natural resources and allocate their use?

What are the creative solutions to use these assets in a way that generates long-term value-added income?

How can we raise our children to have a deep understanding of the North Florida environment and the creative abilities to live there wisely?

These are vital questions that can launch us down the path from the extractive economy that has dominated and impoverished North Florida, to a creative economy that will restore and protect our natural resources and improve the health and financial well-being of our people.

In this vision, North Florida conserves its natural resources and uses them in harmony with the regenerative capacities of the environment while supporting the long-term health and economic vitality of rural, small town, and urban communities.

Joon Thomas is an artist and lifelong resident of North Florida with a special interest in education and water resources. This column is part of The Sun’s Messages from the Springs Heartland series.

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