As sea level rise slowly devours our tropical shores, development is threatening to erode South Florida’s trademark ecosystem: the Everglades. Over half the Everglades has been eaten up already, and if developers of South Florida had their way, soon the rest would be a mind-numbing sprawl of strip malls, eateries, and luxury apartments.
The Everglades has been affected by large-scale drainage attempts to proposed massive jetports and sprawling housing developments. Today, this ecosystem is mainly protected, yet attempts to push back the urban boundary and devour more wetland occur regularly.
Now, urban expansion is extending its tentacles into the agricultural reserve in Palm Beach County. Hugging the eastern edge of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the reserve buffers the greater Everglades Protection Area. Over the last 20 years, numerous developments have cropped up in this area, directly threatening the health and benefits of the Everglades.
Map of the Agricultural Reserve, outlined in purple. Source: Palm Beach County
History of the Reserve
The agricultural reserve was originally established in 1999 with a very different purpose—to protect open space, environmentally sensitive lands, agricultural areas, greenways, and lands for water resources. The reserve has numerous conservation easements, which restrict certain land uses such as development or subdivision.
However, developers, along with the county commissioners, have focused on reducing or eliminating these land protection requirements. As a result, hundreds of acres of commercial development are now found in the reserve, along with thousands of homes blanketing 27% of its area.
Advantages of an Undeveloped Reserve
Yet covering the reserve with concrete and subdivisions reduces its benefits. For instance, this area generates over $148 million per year through vegetable farms, equestrian facilities, and plant and tree nurseries. Locally grown foods can be more economical for residents, while farms also donate produce to food banks and pantries.
In addition, undeveloped lands soak up rainwater better than highly paved areas, meaning the reserve can alleviate flooding downstream. It also recharges the aquifer and boosts our drinking water supply. Finally, the reserve’s natural areas are used for recreation and scientific research.
American alligator in the Everglades
Protecting the Adjacent Loxahatchee
The agricultural reserve also buffers its next-door neighbor: the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. A teardrop-shaped corner of the northeastern Everglades, the refuge was established to protect native flora and fauna, especially rare and endangered species.
Over 250 species of birds live there, including endangered Everglade snail kites and threatened wood storks. It’s also home to American alligators, river otters, Florida softshell turtles, and bobcats.
Finally, humans use the refuge too. Over 300,000 people per year visit it to hike, bike, canoe, boat, fish, and hunt. Developing the adjacent agricultural reserve could damage the refuge, disturb wildlife, and cause noise and light pollution.
Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
What Can You Do to Protect the Agricultural Reserve?
Unfortunately, urban expansion is constantly threatening the Everglades. However, the development of Florida’s open spaces is not inevitable. If we work together, we can protect the agricultural reserve and safeguard the Everglades.
Easy Actions to Take:
- Tell your County Commissioner you oppose increased development in the agricultural reserve. The Sierra Club has a sample letter.
- Share this information with your friends and family, and on social media.
- Attend quarterly County meetings:
- In person at the Governmental Center, 6 floor Commission Chambers, 301 N. Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach, 33401.
- Or watch online with agendas posted one week before.
- Sign a petition to help protect the agricultural reserve.
- Support a local nonprofit.