It was like picking money up off the ground

During my 30 years as editorial page editor of the Gainesville Sun I had a habit of calling myself a fighter of lost causes. And there’s no question I lost more than I won.

But while breezing through Google the other day I came across an item that reminded me of the time we – the Sun’s editorial page, Gainesville’s environmental community and a lot of other folks – won a big one in the face of corporate greed and all too accommodating state enablers.

So let’s take a stroll down memory lane and savor that time we won a big one.

Anyway, I was surfing the net (do they still say that?) when I came across this piece in Earth.com. Basically it was about how scientists are rethinking peat mines around the world in light of new evidence about the contributions peatlands make to carbon sequestration.

Which article served to remind me of the time more than 40 years ago when a very large corporation decided it would make all kinds of sense to dig up peat in the Santa Fe Swamp and truck it to Palatka in order to keep their stinky paper mill running sans oil.

This being the same swamp that functions as a water filtration system/conduit between Santa Fe Lake and the Santa Fe River.

I was still Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the New York Times Florida Newspapers, in 1980, when I first began to write about Georgia Pacific’s bid to turn the Santa Fe Swamp into its private peat dispensary.

Two things struck me about the initial state meetings in regard to Georgia Pacific’s plan to mine peat in the swamp.

The first was how, um, user-friendly state officials seemed to be whenever some corporation wanted Florida’s permission to turn green into gold.

And the second thing was that this business of cutting up swamp peat and trucking it to a paper mill was a pretty invasive process. One that wasn’t likely to leave Santa Fe Swamp looking or functioning like it always had.

Anyway, shortly thereafter I departed Tallahassee to settle into my new gig as editorial writer for The Sun. And our campaign to defeat the, um, “de-peating” of the Santa Fe Swamp turned out to be one of my first editorial crusades.

It did not proceed without some bumps in the road. One of my editorials argued that keeping the swamp healthy was vital for the fish camps that were already doing business on the Santa Fe River.

That’s when Sun business editor Al Hall told me that there was only one fish camp left on the river. A rookie mistake.

But nonetheless we persisted.

And not just at the Sun. Soon it became apparent that a lot of local environmentalists were up in arms. Not to mention folks who lived alongside the lake or the river.

Indeed, the Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association – which turned out to be a powerful lobbying group in its own right – did not exist until the threat of peat mining prompted lakeside residents to band together in common cause.

And then the University of Florida’s famed ecologist Howard Odum weighed in. He pointed out that the short-term economic benefits of stripping peat out of the swamp pale would in comparison to the long-term economic benefits of leaving the swamp alone.

Long story short. We won and Georgia Pacific lost. And the Santa Fe Swamp is intact to this day. And the Santa Fe River has been designated an Outstanding Florida Water in recognition of its ecological importance.

And a significant victory it was, in light of subsequent information and finding.

Oh, and one more thing…..

I would not suggest that Georgia-Pacific was ever dealing with Florida in bad faith. I mean, then-Commerce Sec. Sid Levine himself called them a “good corporate citizen.”

Still, some years after GP threw in the, um peat, and donated its swamp land to the state, this happened.

But listen, Florida wouldn’t exist if generations of entrepreneurs had not grown fat and happy peddling swamp land at inflated values.

Because we are a state invented by con men and opportunists.

But that is a blog for another day.

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