The Florida Keys are home to an immense amount of biodiversity. Tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rocklands, and fresh water wetlands inhabit the land while the ocean around the Keys houses a fragile marine environment that includes seagrass meadows, mangrove islands, and the third largest coral reef system in the world. (Murley, 2001) However, this unique and fragile ecosystem is showing signs of stress such as decreased oceanic water quality and increasing numbers of endangered species. The blame for this degradation is being put on the increasing number of residents (permanent and seasonal) and visitors. In response to this trend, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) embarked upon a project, titled the Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study (FKCCS). This project was designed to study the level of land development activities, that usually accompanies increases in population, that can be pursued without any further irreversible and/or adverse impacts to the Florida Keys ecosystem. (USACEa, 2001)
In 1979 the Keys were designated as an “area of critical concern” by the Florida Legislature and at the same time the “Principles for Guiding Development” was created to set local land use planning and development regulation standards. In addition, a Rate of Growth Ordinance was established a few years later to limit annual building permits and is still in use today. In 1991 the Monroe County Year 2010 Comprehensive Plan was adopted by the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners to address this same area of concern. The DCA rejected the plan on the grounds of noncompliance with Florida Statute, section 163.3184(1)(b). Subsequent administrative proceedings to change the plan highlighted the fact that specific aspects of the ecosystem were already exceeding carrying capacity thresholds such as: nearshore waters, seagrasses, and the endangered Key Deer. In addition, the upper capacity limit for hurricane evacuation had been reached, so safety issues were of concern also. (USACEa, 2001) So with this in mind, in 1996 the Florida Administration Commission and the Governor ordered a “carrying capacity analysis” for the Florida Keys.
The area of concern for the study includes all of Monroe County, which is located 32 miles south of Miami, spanning from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas. This group of islands total one hundred square miles and are neighbored by the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and northwest and by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The boundaries for the FKCCS specifically, follow that of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with mile marker 0 in Key West and ending at mile marker 113 south of Florida City at the county line. (USACEb, 2001) Human habitation earns it merits in this study, due to the fact that the Keys are home to 80,000 permanent residents and accommodate approximately 2.5 million tourists annually to visit and/or live seasonally
The ecological focus of the study is an overall goal of sustainable development for the Keys, with some sort of tool as the end product that can help determine what the impacts of additional land development activities will do to the Keys ecosystem. The objectives of the study are as follows:
1. Effectively inform and obtain information from Keys citizens through a
Public involvement and peer review study component.
2. Develop a knowledge base for each element in the study which can be utilized independently and reflect all related studies by various agencies.
3. Define requirements, responses and limiting factors for each key natural resource indicator or species of concern of the Florida Keys ecosystem, identifying and quantifying tolerance limits, wherever possible.
4. Develop relationship(s) that describe the impact that land development activities, humans and associated infrastructure have on the environment in the Florida Keys, e.g. amount and pathways of nutrient and contaminant inputs to nearshore water.
5. Develop an analysis tool for objective assessment and projection of the outcomes of different scenarios. e.g. affecting aquatic nutrient loads; sustainable tourism; diversity of high quality habitats; aesthetics; and community character issues.
6. Identify areas and the natural resource category requiring restoration efforts to restore ecosystem integrity.
7. Deliver a tool for planning the future of Monroe County.
8. Document the interconnected nature of the Florida Keys ecosystem.
9. Answer questions such as what and sometimes how elements affect
Reaching the goal of sustainability, while acknowledging that decisions and policies are established in the regulatory, political, and public arenas.
By achieving these objectives, the principal product of the FKCCS will be a carrying capacity analysis based upon applying future scenarios to a carrying capacity analysis model (CCAM) that takes in account land development impacts as the common denominator. The study will also produce a set of “tools” including a Geographic Information System (GIS) database and an element database to work cohesively with the CCAM to aid in analyzing any future scenarios. For this initial study, 5 separate scenarios were chosen for evaluation: four representing different future conditions and one representing the pre-1930’s (which is the time period prior to construction of U.S. Highway 1, which connects all the Keys islands together and joins them to the mainland). (USACEa, 2001)
In order for the CCAM to perform its duties, an extensive database of the Keys must be established. There are three main categories that were chosen as integral elements to the sustainability of the Keys: natural resources; human infrastructure; and social environment. These categories are then broken down into study plan elements, for which the data will be compiled and put into the database for the CCAM. The natural resources category addresses the water quality element, the ecosystem element, and the species of concern element. Within the water quality element many factors will be taken into account such as underground storage tanks, sanitary wastewater, and stormwater. The ecosystem element encompasses three habitat types: marine, uplands, and wetlands. The marine ecosystem part of this element targets the coral reef, seagrasses, and marine fauna. Fragmentation and/or elimination of the tropical hardwood hammocks and the pine rockland habitats is the focus of the uplands portion. Lastly, the wetland subunit includes mangroves, freshwater wetlands, saltmarshes, and buttonwood wetlands. The Species of Concern element is looking at the various endangered species and how habitat protection and conservation need to be included in the study strategy to help protect these species. The Keys are home to a variety of endangered species, such as the Key Deer, American crocodile, silver rice rat, Key Largo cotton mouse, Key Largo wood rat, Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Key mud turtle, Stock Island tree snail, Shaus’ swallow tail butterfly, piping plover, white-crowned pigeon, colonial nesting birds, shorebirds and several sea turtle species. (USACEa, 2001)
The human infrastructure category is comprised of seven integral elements: population forecast; wastewater; stormwater; transportation; marinas, heavily traveled channels, ports; hurricane evacuation; and other infrastructure services (e.g. police, hospitals, schools, etc.). The last category, Social Environment, is focusing on establishing an understanding of the socioeconomic forces driving and being impacted by change in the Keys and how these forces result in changes of the community life.
The entire study is expected to take three years (July 1998 – Aug 2001) and $6 million to complete. As of May 2001, there was one interim report that had been published on the status of the study done by the National Research Council, Division on Earth and Life Studies, Ocean Studies Board & Water Science and Technology Board, and the Committee to Review the Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study. A brief, preliminary review which consisted of a review of the Scope of Work for the Keys Study and a two-day workshop in January 2001 where the study team explained their goals and their progress to date, is what the report committee provided feedback on. Specifically, the committee reviewed and commented on the these aspects of the CCAM: overall design assumptions; data used; requirements, responses, limiting factors, and thresholds for study categories selected; determination of how land development activities will affect study categories; and the adequacy and reliability of the study as a basis for local and state land management and planning decisions. Based on the information they gathered, the report committee concluded that it is feasible to create a semi-quantitative tool (CCAM) for assessing the broad impacts of alternative future development scenarios on important biological, environmental, social, and economic factors. (Interim Review, 2001) Although this positive comment was made on the CCAM, the report committee did make a few suggestions for the designers of the CCAM to ensure its usefulness and credibility in the scientific world:
• Place a greater emphasis on definition of concepts and agreement on desired outcomes
• Ensure a higher level of coordination between the different modules that make up the CCAM
• Make better use of the expert advisors who have been involved in the process and could offer valuable, ongoing feedback
• Set clear priorities, overall and within each module, to ensure that the most important elements are addressed first
(National Academies, 2001)
Overall, if the objectives of this study are followed through with, and the suggestions are taken constructively, the Florida Keys should advance to a much higher level of sustainability. The fact that this has been an issue for over 21 years for the Keys, shows that this is a real and important concern that needs to be addressed before any further damage is done. A happy medium can be achieved for both the humans and the ecosystem in which they live. By looking at the carrying capacity and placing limits on future development the environment will remain in the state that attracted the humans there in the first place.
Murley, James F. Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study. May 13, 2001.
National Academies. Interim Review of the Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study. May
USACEa. Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study Scope of Work. June 4, 2001.
USACEb. Central and Southern Florida Ecosystem Restoration Critical Project
Letter Report. February, 1998.
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