An Economic and Constitutional defense of Florida’s Amendment 1

Vote Yes on Amendment 1, here’s why.

Voters filling out ballots in the coming days for Florida’s November 4th election may have heard several arguments for and against Amendment 1. Many of the for arguments are environmental, and many of the against arguments are economic and legal. This blog entry provides an economic and legal argument in favor of Amendment 1. I have arranged the entry into a numbered list of the most commonly seen criticisms against Amendment 1 or the most commonly asked questions. I respond with rebuttals drawn from economic and legal scholarship. It is divided into 2 sections, starting with the legal section and ending with the economics. Skip to the ones that interest you, or read through as one piece.

Gator

Gator in the mangrove roots in Jonathan Dickinson State Park

The Legal Stuff:

 

  1. Is Amendment 1 a new tax?

No. Amendment 1, put quite simply, is an amendment to the Florida state constitution where we take a pre-existing tax (on deeds and other documents related to property) and channel a third of that revenue to a Land Conservation Trust Fund. The trust fund is set up to acquire pieces of land, like wetlands, forests, beaches and shores, rural landscapes. It can also purchase more “peopled” natural spaces, like working farms, ranches, open green space in cities, and land in the Everglades Agricultural Area. In other words, it is set up in order to purchase, protect, and restore the natural spaces that make Florida Florida. It will do this in a way where budgets for restorations are reliable and predictable.

  1. Why a trust fund?

A lot of important things in the U.S. are financed by taxes and the money is sent to trust finds. The most obvious example is Social Security, which takes a payroll tax and puts it into a trust fund. Also, the Highway Trust Fund used to build our nation’s interstates comes from your gasoline taxes.

 

  1. Is placing an environmental amendment in the state constitution an over reach of government power?

Some citizens groups criticize Amendment 1 saying that state constitutions are no place for amendments that deal with topical issues, like the environment. Even the most cursory glance of the legal scholarship on state constitutions would show you this is not true. Beginning in the 60’s and 70’s America saw a “flood tide” of constitutional updating, with environmental amendments as major components of these updates. Environmental conservation articles attached to state constitutions (such as Amendment 1) are commonly considered to be “fundamental inclusions” that are worthy of a state constitution. Florida, along with many other states (including but by no means limited to NY, MI, IL, PA, RI, and VA), has seen environmental amendments to its constitution made since 1970 (Source: Howard 1972).

  1. So if state constitutions have had environmental conservation amendments since the 1970s, then why are anti-Amendment 1 groups making this argument?

Well, they’re seeing what sticks, and recently, this sticks. Certain partisan figures, like those on talk radio, use the constitution to make opinionated claims about the proper size of government. The constitution (both federal and state) gets used a lot to justify rigid and ideological political opinions. These opinions often involve the scaling back of government services, such as environmental protection. The reality is that this type of environmental conservation amendment (in a state constitution) is by no means 1) an over reach of power by the state, 2) an example of government over-reach, or 3) a substantial deviation from what we are already doing in Florida.

In fact, I would say Amendment 1 is not big government at all, but status quo-sized-government. Why? Because state courts rely on what is known as “self execution” for constitutional amendments in order to determine if they’re legal. This means that the amendment needs to be a clear, complete, and enforceable rule. Amendment 1 takes a tax that already exists and sets the money aside to buy land for conservation purposes. (Source: Fernandez 1993).

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

The Economic Stuff:

  1. Why conserve land at all?

Think about the following story. Imagine two identical houses, one with a view of the beach and the other one on a regular suburban block about 20 minutes drive from the beach. The one on the beach will sell for a far higher price because of its natural surroundings. People value nature and we display this all the time in our a market economy. This story symbolizes the economic value of Florida’s conserved resources, both to the people who live there and to the tourists who visit. Conserved land (and the ecosystems on them, like reefs, wetlands, forests, rivers) is a major component of Florida’s tourism economy. The Everglades received over a million visitors in 2013, and Big Cypress National Preserve another million. That’s a lot of hotels, rental cars, and meals in local diners.

These are the more visible and obvious ways to value conservation. In the following sections, I discuss the other types of economic value are harder to notice but equally (if not more) important. These types of values help answer question 2.

South Beach, Miami

South Beach, Miami

  1. Does the conservation of land mean that it is no longer useful in enhancing economic growth, because you can’t tax it or develop it?

No. Many organizations that have come out against Amendment 1 say that once you cordon off land for conservation, it becomes worthless to our economy. The exact opposite of that is true. These so-called economic arguments ignore 40 years of science and economics on the true economic values of Florida environments; I expand on this science in numbers 3-5 below. These arguments are dangerous because they present a false choice between economic development and conservation. Florida is a state built on the tourism industry, and the tourists are not coming for strip malls, polluted waterways, dead manatees, and parking lots, they are coming to sip a cold drink on our clean shorelines, charter a fishing boat to catch a big fish, or hike the Glades to see some big gators.

A boat for charter in Key Largo

A boat for charter in Key Largo

 

  1. What concrete economic benefits do lands used for conservation provide?

First, let’s think about ecosystems. Ecosystems are made up of all the plants and animals plus all of the soil, air, and water that they call home. We can easily recognize some common examples of ecosystems, such as wetlands, oceans, swamps, and so on. Florida ecosystems actually do a lot of things for us that we don’t really think about in our day to day lives, like giving us fresh water, land where can grow crops, coral reefs that can slow down big waves caused by hurricanes, fish for our blackened hogfish sandwiches and so on. We can call these things that ecosystems do for people “services” or “benefits”.

Ecosystems offer two types of economic benefits, ones that we can easily count (the price of a hogfish at the market) and ones that are pretty hard to count (the benefits from wetlands changing polluted runoff into clean drinking water—yes they can do this!). In Florida, the difficulty involved in counting up all of the ecosystem services and benefits means that they are constantly and systematically undervalued in public discussions on decision-making and the environment. We are making policy decisions without having all of the information first.

So where can we find this information on the real value of Florida’s ecosystems? For a few decades, thousands of scientists all over the world have been studying the economic value of these ecosystem services. The results of thousands of scientific studies are in a global database that is free and easy to use. I want to use just a small portion of their findings in order to show you a figure closer to the true economic value of just one Floridian ecosystem (Sources: Costanza et al. 1997, De Groot et al. 2012, Costanza et al. 2014).

Sunset at Everglades National Park November 2013

Sunset at Everglades National Park November 2013

  1. What would the economic value of conserving Florida’s swampland be?

It would take me a ton of time to go through every type of ecosystem that Amendment 1 would allow the state to purchase for conservation, so I’ll pick one: swamps (let’s call them wetlands).

I am first going to list the valuable ecosystem services that wetlands provide to people. Then, I use published science to list out the economic values of these services, i.e. what these environments are really worth, in terms of dollar amounts. Then, with this new information, we can return to the question of the economic value of conservation land posed in the beginning.

Specific Economic Benefits of Wetlands:

  1. Wetlands regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, turning it back into breathable oxygen through photosynthesis (a word that just means that plants are using light to make food). Wetlands lessen greenhouse effects that are responsible for a changing climate.
  1. Wetlands act like barriers to hurricanes, buffering coastal inhabitants from storm surge and flooding. Their dense plant life impedes and slows storm surge, and they hold water that could otherwise flood our communities in hurricane season.
  1. Wetlands supply us with drinking water.
  1. Wetlands, through chemical processes that are hard to see, actually create very fertile soil for agriculture. This is why the big area just south of Lake Okeechobee was converted into farmland (the Everglades Agricultural Area). This is also why there is so much agriculture around the Everglades and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
  1. Wetlands cycle waste into clean water, and they also clean polluted water that is filled with nutrients from fertilizers and animal wastes, or other types of runoff.
  1. Diseases and the things that cause them (think mosquitos and West Nile virus) are soaked up and concentrated in swamps, away from us and our communities.
  1. People come from all over the world to boat, fish, and hike in our wetlands. Over a million people came to Florida to enjoy the Everglades and another million for Big Cypress National Preserve. Count their car rentals, hotels, meals, and souvenirs, and that is a lot of money.
  1. Wetlands provide food such as fish (channel catfish, blue gill, panfish, redear) and plants that can be used for pharmaceuticals.

One way that you can think of the economic values is considering how much we’d have to pay if we had to replace all of the wetlands in Florida, and instead cleaned and treated all of our water in manmade facilities? What would it cost us to remove all the fertilizer runoff ourselves? What would it cost us to build flood control structures for storms?

air plants in an Everglades slough

air plants in an Everglades slough

  1. Now we know what they do for us, but how much are these services actually worth?

The first thing that we need to establish is that Florida has 8 million hectares of wetlands. How big is a hectare you may ask? A hectare is a metric unit for 10,000 square meters. Think of a professional soccer field. This is a bit smaller than a hectare. So any value you see here needs to be multiplied by 8 million in order to calculate the real annual economic value statewide of Florida wetlands.

Say we only wanted to compute the value of hardest to count services, i.e. the value of services 1-6 in my list above. These services put together are worth $171,364 per hectare of wetland per year. So take this value, and multiply it by 8 million hectares of Florida wetlands. We get an annual benefit to the state of Florida worth 1.37 trillion dollars annually.

What about the value for the last two services on my list (7-8) recreation and fishing? Wetlands provide $25,000 per hectare per year in total services. Again, multiplied out by the total Florida wetland area is over $200 billion dollars in recreational services.

Breaking down some specific services, let’s look at wastewater treatment. This alone is worth $3015 per hectare per year. Across Florida, this service is valued at over $24 billion. Wetlands prevent flooding when those famous Florida afternoon storms hit. This service is worth $5607 per hectare of wetland each year. Across the state, wetlands preventing floods can be valued at $44 billion.

What about the services that ecosystems provide to just animals, are these of any value? Consider how wetlands serve as habitat for Florida species of birds and fish. Well, those seemingly animal-only values and benefits are a bit more complicated than they seem. The wetlands serve as nurseries to many species of fish that grow up to become commercially valuable. The economic value provided by one hectare of wetlands that act as a nursery for juvenile fish is over $1287 per hectare per year. Multiply this out across the state, and you are talking about a value approaching 10 billion dollars.

The sources of these numbers are several studies that examine every single estimate made on the valuable things that environments do for people across thousands of studies all over the world. Is it 100% accurate and unique to Florida wetlands? No, but at the very least, it gives us a new way to think about economics and the environment not limited to simplistic policy choices. Think of it like a model of a town: there are exaggerations in scale, along with things that are too small or left our completely, yet it still helps you see the lay of the land. But it is not the town itself. (Source De Groot et al. 2012, Costanza et al. 1997, Costanza et al. 2014).

Rich farmland adjacent to Everglades National Park

Rich farmland adjacent to Everglades National Park

Conclusion

If I were to do this for all of the different ecosystems that Amendment 1 would protect for the people of Florida, values would be in the trillions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, these ecosystems could include “wetlands, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, beaches and shores, recreational trails and parks, urban open space, rural landscapes, working farms and ranches, historical and geological sites, lands protecting water and drinking water resources and lands in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and the Everglades Protection Area.”

So, next time you hear about environmental conservation costing Florida tax payers a ton of money, think about the services ecosystems provide for us that we cannot see every day, that are hard to count, or the ones that we take for granted, and then think about the immense economic value they have to Florida society.

References:

Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., Groot, R. D., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., … & Belt, M. V. D. (1997). The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S. J., Kubiszewski, I., … & Turner, R. K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change, 26, 152-158.

de Groot, R., Brander, L., van der Ploeg, S., Costanza, R., Bernard, F., Braat, L., … & van Beukering, P. (2012). Global estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services in monetary units. Ecosystem Services, 1(1), 50-61.

Fernandez, J. L. (1993). State Constitutions, Environmental Rights Provisions, and the Doctrine of Self-Execution: A Political Question. Harv. Envtl. L. Rev.,17, 333.

Howard, A. D. (1972). State Constitutions and the Environment. Virginia Law Review, 193-229.

The unofficial, emblematic symbol of Florida, the manatee

The unofficial, emblematic symbol of Florida, the manatee

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Why your vote for The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District really matters if you care about Florida’s reefs and coasts

I wrote this for a non-scientific audience.

I am a diver, I know a lot of people who dive, and I know a lot of those people detest state level politics. I think this is a really big problem for us folks who love Florida’s coasts, its oceans, reefs, and fish. The way we look after our natural resources is a political and economic choice that we have a lot of impact on based on how we vote. I believe that people who care a lot about the environment tend to think that its management is the job of technical people, scientists and engineers. But I would argue that the people you vote for hold the power to utterly ruin the way we look after out natural resources, by setting anemic budgets, non-existent allocations, and removing agendas altogether, in effect decimating management organizations at the state level. Rick Scott, I’m looking at you. I would also say that these are incredibly myopic decisions, since so much of the state’s economy is completely dependent on healthy and functioning ecosystems. Environmentalism is not an afterthought, it is the framework on which our state economy gets built.

Governor, judiciary, amendments aside, as many local newspapers already do a pretty good job analyzing the environmental impacts of these candidates, I am here to write about the little known Soil and Water Conservation District. As somebody who cares about Florida’s healthy coral reefs, fisheries, and coasts, why does this particular elected position have so much importance to Palm Beach County voters?

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District is the local government agency that helps farmers implement best management practices in agriculture. Agricultural best management policies reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants entering the Florida water resource system. What does that have to do with our reefs, fish, and coasts?

Agricultural runoff from land sources (farms) is one of the biggest causes of serious stress to Florida’s reefs. Runoff has two components that cause major biological problems: sediment and nutrients. Sediment clouds our coastal waters and blocks reefs from their critical life source: sunlight. Sunlight is required for a photosynthetic algae living in the coral tissue (“photosynthetic” is just another word for when a plant turns light into food). These algae are a critical part of the coral animal, and if they are not making food, the coral cannot grow and continue to be part of a healthy reef. They also give coral their color by the way.

Nutrients from the agricultural runoff also increase when best management practices for soil and water are not followed. This results in unchecked growth of algae that coats coral reefs and also blocks the sunlight. In addition, when the microscopic plantlife throughout the coastal waters (“phytoplankton”) have a lot of nutrients to work with, they bloom in full force, die, and deplete the oxygen that is naturally dissolved in the water. This kills large amounts of fish in a very short time, coating the beaches and shorelines with rotting fish. This has impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, and similar scale blooms have been linked to record breaking manatee die offs. Some algal blooms are natural, but many, with increased nutrient supply are not.

The definitive scientific study of excess sediment and nutrient content on coral reefs shows that when runoff increases, so too does coral mortality, algal blooms, and muddy water. Some things that decrease with runoff are: coral cover on the reef, the strength of the hard calcium carbonate skeletal part of the coral (i.e. more brittle corals), and the diversity of corals (Fabricius 2004). More diverse reefs lead to healthier reefs that are more capable of absorbing shocks, like disease or a big storm with waves that hammer the reef. Think of it like the backup players on a football team, talented and numerous backups make for a stronger team during an unexpected injury. When you lack strong backups, you have the Florida gators 2013 season.

The agricultural land in Palm Beach County is a significant source of runoff that not only impacts our near shore reefs, but also those of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (LaPointe et al. 2004). Thus, the choices we make have far reaching impacts that in turn, affect the dive/marine/fishing economy in the entire state of Florida. This is an industry in which millions of Florida residents make a living.

Economically speaking, we need healthy reefs even if we don’t dive. Reefs protect and buffer coastal settlements (our homes) from the big storms we get during hurricane season. Reefs also buffer settlements from the constant wave action that has produced hometown surfing greats like Kelly Slater. Reefs provide nursery space for commercially valuable fish species to reach a size where we are allowed to fish them. And most relevant to me, as graduate student living in frosty Cambridge, MA, they attract a lot of money (millions and millions of dollars) in tourism revenue each year from divers, snorkelers, and visitors to our national parks, beaches, and barrier islands.

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers implement best management practices for decreasing runoff, sediment, and excess nutrients that end up making their way to our coasts and our ocean environments. It is an education-based agency, whose elected board does not receive a salary. It is not public knowledge how their budget gets spent (spare generalities, i.e. “we spend it on outreach”), or how effective their education programs actually are in practice. As we all know, you can print as many brochures as you want, but whether or not they actually have an impact is another thing.

There are two candidates: Eva Webb and Karl Dickey. Here are my thoughts on them. Originally, all of the Gadsden Flags scared me off from Karl’s site, as Libertarians tend to reduce Florida’s environmental problems to a false equivalency between private property and conservation, a gross oversimplification that ignores many of the hard-to-count economic and financial benefits that healthy environments offer people and their livelihoods. He is not that type of libertarian though. He is plugged into environmental thinking, has some great ideas about good governance and accountability, and has vision on how to reshape the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized area surrounded by not only agriculture but also fragile ecosystems. Despite my effort, I could not get ahold of Eva Webb. From what I gather, she has ties to the Florida Farm Bureau (Assistant Director of Field Services), an agricultural lobbying/interest group. Just to put it in perspective, the national level American Farm Bureau called their 2010 meeting “”Global Warming: A Red Hot Lie?” Yikes. However, a big part of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District remit is to engage stakeholders, and perhaps her ties to agricultural interest groups may help with that. Perhaps it is a conflict of interest. I tried asking, and I don’t have an answer.

Whoever you vote for, just make sure you vote. Divers are a significant part of the marine economy, which is in turn a significant part of Florida’s golden goose: the tourism industry.

Papers I mentioned in this blog entry:

Fabricius, K. E. (2005). Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis. Marine pollution bulletin50(2), 125-146.

Lapointe, B. E., Barile, P. J., & Matzie, W. R. (2004). Anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of seagrass and coral reef communities in the Lower Florida Keys: discrimination of local versus regional nitrogen sources. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology308(1), 23-58.

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach