One of State's Last Unspoiled Places Threatened by Unchecked Real Estate Development

TALLAHASSEE (March 2, 2006) -- Florida's Emerald Coast, one of the last remaining unspoiled regions in the state, is under tremendous pressure from real estate development that could destroy its natural character forever. Today, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) announced a new BioGem campaign to protect this largely undeveloped area, which stretches from Pensacola to Tallahassee, from destructive building projects.

The main threat to this special place is the St. Joe Company, Florida's largest private landowner, which is trying to entice city dwellers and suburbanites seeking a "simpler life" to move to the sparsely settled region. The company owns more than 800,000 acres across the Panhandle, including hundreds of miles of waterfront. Covering more than 1,250 square miles, St. Joe's property is larger than Rhode Island.

"St. Joe's vision for the Emerald Coast would mean an unnecessary new airport and sprawling real estate projects that would transform this coastal treasure into a maze of housing developments, shopping malls, office parks and golf courses," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC attorney. "Florida cannot afford to sacrifice one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country for baby boomer vacation homes."

NRDC's campaign to protect Florida's Emerald Coast is part of a larger initiative the organization launched in 2001 to defend exceptional, imperiled ecosystems. Each year, NRDC names 12 BioGems -- unspoiled wildlands in the Americas threatened by development -- and mobilizes citizens to take direct action to protect them. Over the last five years, NRDC's 550,000 online BioGem activists have sent more than 7 million messages to corporate and government officials protesting plans to destroy some of the Western Hemisphere's last wild and unspoiled places.

Previous NRDC campaigns forced Mitsubishi and the Mexican government to abandon plans to build a massive industrial salt plant near a critical breeding area for the Pacific gray whale, and recently spurred the British Columbian government to establish a 5-million-acre Great Bear Rainforest park to protect wildlife habitat on its Pacific Coast.

The Emerald Coast will join 11 other BioGems carried over from the 2005 list, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Cumberland Plateau in the Southeastern United States, and Mexico's Upper Gulf of California. The dozen BioGems stretch from the Alaskan Arctic to the southern reaches of Chile. (For more about NRDC's 2006 BioGems, click here.)

What's at Stake

Ranked as one of the six most biologically diverse regions in the United States by the Nature Conservancy, the Emerald Coast is a hotspot of biological diversity, providing habitat for 27 federally endangered species, including the green turtle, red-cockaded woodpecker and wood stork, and 15 federally threatened species, including the American alligator, loggerhead turtle and bald eagle.

The area's coastline features bays, pristine estuarine habitats, and rare dune lakes. Beyond the coast, the 15-county region boasts a wide diversity of ecosystems, including longleaf pine forests, cypress swamps and wetlands, which provide natural protection against Gulf Coast hurricanes as well as a home for a wide range of wildlife.

All this is threatened by a number of massive development projects, including new highways and a new regional airport in Bay County. The scope and scale of this development would destroy wetlands, cause flooding, degrade water quality, and bury streams, according to NRDC.

Controversy Mounts

NRDC first joined the fight to protect the Panhandle last May, when, along with the Sierra Club, the group sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a general permit providing blanket authorization for St. Joe and other real estate firms to develop some 48,000 acres in Bay and Walton counties. Nearly half of the land is covered by wetlands. The Corps permit would fast-track development around Lake Powell, West Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay without environmental review or public input, both required by federal law. There was a court hearing on this case in mid-February in Jacksonville. (For more information on this case, click here.)

Today NRDC is joining forces with the Sierra Club, Citizens for the Bay, the Clean Water Network of Florida, and Friends of Panama City Airport to oppose plans to build a new airport on a 4,000-acre site in northwestern Bay County, about half of which is wetlands. St. Joe is lobbying for the new airport because it would improve access to the company's property and increase land values. The proposed airport, however, would pollute West Bay and destroy habitat for Florida black bears, gopher tortoises, sea turtles, Gulf sturgeon and other wildlife. Moreover, the cost of building the airport would be largely borne by state and federal taxpayers.

"Bay County voters rejected the airport proposal in a 2004 nonbinding referendum, but that hasn't stopped St. Joe or the state from pursuing this boondoggle," said Don Hodges, a retired airline technical executive and a resident of Bay County. "This is neither the time nor the place to build a destructive new airport as corporate welfare. We already have an underutilized airport that can serve the region well into the future when we will know much more about the troubled aviation industry, the realistic prospects for another airport, and the true environmental and financial cost."

To ensure the future of the Emerald Coast, NRDC and its local partners will urge the Federal Aviation Administration to deny the proposal to build a new airport at the West Bay site. Likewise, they will ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny permits to dredge and fill wetlands to build the airport. Second, NRDC and its allies will ask the state of Florida and private preservation groups to purchase environmentally sensitive land from St. Joe and other developers to protect waterways and wildlife habitat. And third, they will encourage developers to avoid building in or near floodplains and wetlands.