When Development Finds the Forgotten Coast


NASA satellite image of Apalachicola Bay (enhanced).

Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist Wayne Zipperer and colleagues from the Center for Forest Sustainability at Auburn University are looking at the effects of urban development on communities where natural resources have long provided both livelihoods and sense of place.

The town of Apalachicola is part of what’s known as the Forgotten Coast, an area that stretches along the northwest Florida panhandle.  Apalachicola sits in the basin formed by the bay and river that carry the same name; the estuary reserve that encompasses the area is considered one of the least polluted, most ecologically diverse systems in the United States.  Apalachicola is known for its fine bay oysters; town residents harvest over 90 percent of the oysters sold in Florida and 10 percent of those sold nationwide.

“Apalachicola is like other areas of the Forgotten Coast,” says Zipperer, research forester with the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit based in Gainesville, Florida. “The land and sea have formed the economic and social fabric of peoples lives for generations. There’s a real sense of place.”

Much of what makes Apalachicola so charming and prosperous—to some the antithesis of a typical coastal tourist town—could be threatened by urban expansion. Though currently in abeyance due to the recession, development will almost certainly start back up as the economy gets better and when it does, it will bring more impervious surfaces—roads, parking lots, and buildings—that by reducing water infiltration increase runoff loaded with sediment, bacteria, and metals into area waters.

The Apalachicola River basin is currently home to approximately 60 tree species, 1,300 plant species, 308 bird species, and 57 mammal species.  Zipperer and his colleagues estimate that nearly 21 percent of the natural habitats along the Forgotten Coast will be converted to urban uses within the next 50 years. 

Apalachicola Historic District. Photo by Ebyabe, courtesy of Wikimedia.

“The rich diversity of habitats in the sandy lowlands has made the panhandle of Florida one of the six biodiversity hotspots in the United States,” says Zipperer. “Without proper planning, urban growth could reduce available habitat and further imperil the areas threatened and endangered species.”

Urban expansion could also affect that ineffable “sense of place” that residents know well and that attracts visitors looking for authenticity, good local food, and time away from traffic congestion and big box stores. To get at the full range of effects from future development, Zipperer and his colleagues are using an integrated approach that involves vegetation analysis, water and soil sampling, and socioeconomic studies.

In 2010, Auburn University researchers Wayde Morse and Damon Lowery held 20 focus groups that included area realtors, seafood workers, small business owners, retirees, biologists, and residents. As part of the process, participants mapped the natural areas they considered important for ecological, economic, and cultural reasons and discussed preferences for conservation and development.

 “This exercise identified some definite hotspots for conservation—as you might expect, mainly places along the water important for fishing,” says Zipperer. “It also got people talking about the tension between the need for economic growth and the desire for the area to stay unchanged. Though people disagreed on some points, there was wide agreement about the need for conservation and limited development.”

Read more about this project in the latest issue of Leaves of Change.


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