Nature Does It Best

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Lesson three: When it comes to Roberts Bay, the Herald Tribune has missed the real story and printed a fictional, if alarming, one --and not just concerning seagrass. Other recent reporting on the Bay has added further fictions, left out events that seem to qualify as front page news, and ignored all the estuary questions — every single one -- that some Bay enthusiasts (including me) have voiced about another idea for “restoration,” while assailing the motives of the questioners. So I’ll now turn to that.

Kill the Trees

On the front page for Feb. 1, Doug Sword wrote an article that read like an argument for cutting down Australian Pine trees on Big Edwards Island in Roberts Bay, with the headline “Save the views or restore the bays?” The headline and the long article echoed a view I’d heard from Doug when he first contacted me in mid-December, when I presumed he was starting his reporting. His conclusion then was the same as the eventual headline: some of the Bay’s waterfront homeowners (I’m one) put their property values, outside views and desires for privacy screening ahead of the public’s interest in cleaning up the waters and “restoring” Roberts Bay. And worse, County Commissioners had last year failed to resist those non-ecological homeowners when they put aside consideration of cutting down pine trees on Big Edwards Island, located south of Siesta Drive.

Most living humans who read such a story can have only one reaction: “The bay’s at stake. It must be protected. We need ACTION! Kill the trees! Ignore fat cat homeowners—the bay belongs to all of us!” (These jabs are close to many actual reader comments, and a guest editorial the paper ran two days later.)

We all remember Upton Sinclair, “Harvest of Shame” and Rachel Carson, and it’s clear that the reporter, and the Herald-Tribune, are entitled to promote any conclusions they want, before OR after they set out to “get the facts.”

What journalists are NOT entitled to do is to mislead their readers about the actions, statements and goals of people in their stories—especially when reporters have in their possession facts, statements, and documents that contradict the conclusion they want to present. But the Herald-Tribune did it anyway.

I used to work in journalism, and I never wrote about myself. Doing so in this article feels a little different, but I'm going to report a little on the paper's interview with me because it sheds some light on how a pretty good local paper got it so messed up when reporting on Roberts Bay.

The position that I tried to convey to the Herald-Tribune's reporter on the Big Edwards Island project, simply stated, is: 1) I love both the views and the bay; 2) I believe that an ambitious island dredging project threatens the bay without much benefit, and would divert effort from important water quality improvements; and 3) I figure that an island project would cost much more than smaller scale steps to deal with the pines (details later on).

But on the central issue in the Herald-Tribune's article, which claimed there was a conflict between "Saving the Views" and "Restoring the bays," I made it clear where I stood to Doug Sword when he interviewed me at my house, notebook in hand. I said something like: “If I believed that cutting down pines would make a real difference to the water quality of Roberts Bay, I’d support cutting them down. The Bay has got to be the first priority. ”

He wrote it down. I saw him do so. But he didn't put it into his story, which instead gave the opposite impression--proclaiming to the world that I and some neighbors were preventing clean-up of the Bay, and doing so to protect our private views. As I thought I made clear to the reporter, I'd take an axe to the pines myself if I believed it would help bay water quality. But there was no hint of that view in the 2,800 word article. Misleading? Malicious? Let's just call it, a "heck-of-a-job."

The reporter did correctly understand that most homeowners care about their views. And yes, I think the tall pines on Big Edwards Island are beautiful. They appeal to a hefty slice of our community: boaters, picnickers, hundreds of daily tour boat passengers, thousands of car travelers, and an uncounted number who walk, bike, run, visit or live in the three neighborhoods near Big Edwards Island. The pines make Roberts Bay look different from any other place I know in Florida—not just to a few, but to everybody. Were this unique setting to be destroyed, then everyone would bear the burden--in the form of tax increases or service cuts due to dips in property values that are predictable if planners make Roberts Bay look like Punta Gorda.

Tricolored Heron Visits Big
Edwards Island

But the paper didn’t report that my interest in the Bay—and my love for the view seen by nearly everyone who visits Siesta Key and Roberts Bay—has led me to ask: What's the effect of the pines on water quality? And another question, which almost everybody believes should underlie all public policy regarding the environment: What is the best bang for the buck, the best expenditure to make to improve water quality in Roberts Bay?

This article will also take another look at these questions: Why seek to "restore" Big Edwards Island? What problems do the island's pines pose? And what is the best response to them?

As for the water quality questions, there are scientific answers, and they are not controversial. First, the pines have no effect on water quality--zero, zip, zilch. The pines grow only on land (if on an island, they only grow “upland,” away from the water). Explains Tony Pernas, a strong critic of the pines as coordinator of the National Park Service’s Exotic Plant management team for Florida and the Caribbean: “Australian Pines don’t affect water quality." In that respect, adds he, there's no difference between the pines and other common plants.

Then there's the priority question. What water clean-up projects does the bay need the most? According to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, the surprising answer with regard to Roberts Bay is: they're not seeking any clean-up there. On January 15, the Department declared that water quality in Roberts Bay (and Blackburn Bay) had improved so much since 2005 that the state was removing those bays from its list of impaired water bodies. Based on area water samples taken over five years, the state found that Roberts Bay is now not a high, medium or even low priority for corrective action. It’s not impaired.

To bay-watchers, that might seem to be big news, but the Herald-Tribune waited nearly four weeks before referring to it. Finally, nine days after telling readers that those who opposed an island makeover stood in the way of restoring the bays, the paper reported the state’s assessment in a short note inside on page BN1. It didn't say how Roberts Bay had improved so much in just nine days (or, irony aside, how the previous article had misled the public about the Bay’s condition and the location of the true priority needs for continued water quality improvement in Sarasota’s bays).

One analyst who contributed to the state’s review of Roberts and Blackburn Bays is marine biologist David Tomasko, who has tracked Bay water quality over the years for both the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Says Tomasko: . “In Roberts Bay and Blackburn Bay there is about 50% more seagrass than in 1988 and 30% more than in 1950. My view is, this bay is cleaner than it was 20 years ago, and it may be cleaner than 60 years ago--and we know how it happened. This community spent 250 million dollars to fix storm water and wastewater treatment. The whole Sarasota Bay ought to be an example of how to recover a system.”

The state’s environmental review made another very important point. Although Roberts Bay and Big Edwards Island are not even “low” priorities, there are other places in the county that are a high priority for restoring Sarasota’s Bays, say the regulators. If that’s true, then the paper’s crusade for a Big Edwards Island project in Roberts Bay can actually do harm, because if anybody were to act on it, they would be diverting efforts from the problems labeled “high priority” by state monitors.

The “high priority” problems for Sarasota County’s bays, according to the state, are six rivers that flow into various county bays. All are miles away from Big Edwards Island, with the closest being the upstream part of Phillippi Creek, which flows into Roberts Bay two miles south of Big Edwards Island. The other high priority waters in the county that affect Sarasota’s bays: Whitaker Bayou (north of downtown Sarasota), Elligraw Bayou, Clowers Creek and North Creek (Little Sarasota Bay), and Catfish Creek (Blackburn Bay)—plus the Venice fishing pier. In addition, as elsewhere in Florida, the state considers high levels of mercury in fish tissue a high priority in almost all bay waters. Longboat’s estuary is impaired but the state calls it only a “medium” priority; as “low priority,” the state notes that shellfish harvesting in the central Bay near downtown continues to be banned.

Even in Sarasota, Rivers Flow Down to the Sea

While omitting the major news about water quality in Roberts Bay, the crusading Feb. 1 article garbled the tale about recent EPA pressure, making it seem to be about Roberts Bay, when the real target was elsewhere. Said the paper: “This summer the EPA told the county that it needed to cut the amount of nitrogen coming out of Phillippi by another 70 percent to get Roberts Bay off the ‘impaired’ water body list,” attributing this (without quotation marks) to Teresa Connor, the county’s director of environmental services.

This puzzled me, since I had heard of no new focus on Roberts Bay, which was already OFF the state’s ‘impaired’ list. When I called Connor’s office to ask about the reference, I was directed to the county’s manager of water resources, Jack Merriam, who cleared up the confusion: The reductions being sought don’t target the Bay but an area far upstream in the fresh water portion of Phillippi Creek, one of those high priority areas, where nitrogen and bacteria levels appear high. As everybody knows, rivers flow down from the mainland to the sea, not the other way around. So nothing done on Big Edwards Island--with pines, mangroves or the Miss America Contest--will have any effect on pollution in upstream Phillippi. It’s fanciful to suggest otherwise, which the paper did. As the Couunty’s Merriam puts it: “What happens in the North portion of Roberts Bay and Big Edwards Island won’t affect the upper, fresh-water portion of Phillippi.”

Kenneth M. Pierce, now retired in Sarasota, FL, began his career in publishing as a journalist, winning awards at Time Magazine, co-founding the Chicago Journalism Review, and editing the Columbia Journalism Review. His past consulting clients include National Wildlife Magazine.