NOAA: Southwest Florida a ‘hotspot’ for wetland loss

Article Reference: NOAA: Southwest Florida a ‘hotspot’ for wetland loss

By Naples Daily News Staff

Southwest Florida has lost 148 square miles of land cover — an area 1 1/2 times the size of Cape Coral — to development and to changes in the region’s climate over the past two decades, a new government report shows.

Much of the land lost was wetlands, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and environmental experts say are vital to wildlife, help clean waterways, and mitigate flooding and storms.

When it comes to land cover loss, the region is “one of the most active in the country,” said NOAA physical scientist Nate Herold, who directs the mapping effort at NOAA.

The NOAA study, which was released this week, analyzed land cover in 29 coastal states, including those bordering the Great Lakes, from 1996 to 2010 to see how much forested areas and wetlands have shrunk.

“Although development is responsible for most of the changes, storms, drought and sea-level rising also all play a part,” Herold said.

Overall, NOAA found 8.2 percent of the nation’s coastal regions suffered a land cover decline during that period, totaling 64,975 square miles — an area larger than Wisconsin.

Lee County, with an 8.7 percent land cover loss, saw a bigger percentage loss than the national average. That includes losing 38 square miles of forested wetlands. With all land types included, new development gobbled up 54 square miles during the study period.

Herold says Lee “pops out as one of the hot spots for wetland losses,” along with the Tampa-Orlando corridor, coastal Los Angeles and coastal Alabama.

In both Lee and Collier counties, roughly half of the development lost was from freshwater forested wetlands (which also accounted for the bulk of the overall wetland losses), and another third from former agriculture areas, NOAA said.

Collier lost less of its cover than Lee: 21 square miles of forested wetlands disappeared, and 35 square miles of all land types became new development.

But because Collier is nearly twice the size of Lee, and has substantial preserve areas, proportionally it lost less land cover.

In total, NOAA said, about 3 percent of Collier’s area changed during the period.

NOAA’s report noted that throughout the country, 642 square miles, or the equivalent of 61 football fields, is lost to development every day.

“But the southeastern quadrant of the country is especially affected because it isn’t as built out as some other regions of the country, such as the Northeast,” Herold said.

The Southeast also is heavily impacted by industries such as logging, which destroys trees but also replants them, Herold said. So over time, some of the land cover is replaced.

Local restoration and developer mitigation activities also allowed some Gulf Coast areas to gain modest-sized wetlands, Herold said, though the gains did not offset the losses.

Hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes and other natural calamities also destroy land cover, but the effects tend to be localized, he added.

“But over time, these small impacts add up, making the cumulative effect more dramatic,” he said.

Local environmentalists say wetlands serve an important role in the ecosystem, serving as nurseries and breeding grounds for a variety of fish and birds, including the wood stork, a threatened species, and the bizarre two-toed amphiuma, a snakelike salamander.

But they also point to less obvious benefits.

Kevin Cunniff, research coordinator for Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve along the coast between Naples and Marco Island, said the area’s dominant mangrove wetlands produce leaf litter that blunts storm surges. The wetlands also capture sediments that otherwise would be carried inland during storms, effectively serving as land builders.

Jason Lauritsen, director of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary along the Lee-Collier line, said wetlands help prevent red tides by filtering pollution from water runoff; prevent floods by storing large quantities of water during storms; and help control temperatures, which can help prevent tornadoes.

Lauritsen also said the nation has been committed to a policy of no net loss of wetlands since the late 1980s. Supported by four successive presidential administrations, the federal policy seeks to restore wetlands that have been degraded and create new wetlands when building or farms supplant them.

“It was a fantastic idea, but NOAA’s study shows we are not meeting it,” he said.