Paradise Lost

High noon on Cape San Blas, Florida in the early 2000’s. Today, this same stretch of beach has hundreds of people sunning, swimming and dropping trash. Photo by author.

It is really an unhappy moment when you realize that they actually have paved paradise and put in a parking lot.

We just got back from our umpteenth trip to Florida. The weather didn’t cooperate and fishing was a bust but that wasn’t the source of my growing frustration. That feeling came from realizing my personal paradise is now lost; even worse, my own efforts at journalism contributed in some small way.

Both regular readers know this corner frequently disappears into the wilds of “The Forgotten Coast” of Florida, an area of the panhandle just east of Panama City. The moniker comes from the fact that malignant tourism hadn’t really struck the area because of a malodorous paper mill and a chemical plant located right in the middle of the small community of Port St. Joe.

Those plants both closed in the late 1990’s and left the town scrambling to replace lost jobs and tax revenue. However, it didn’t take long for town fathers to realize they were sitting on one of the last pristine stretches of the Gulf Coast, long overlooked because of remoteness coupled with the visitor-repelling smell of paper and chemicals. Thus began a renaissance.

I was there from the beginning when we first visited around the time they shut off the lights at the paper mill. Our purpose was a dive trip in the Gulf of Mexico to a merchant ship that had been torpedoed 26 miles offshore during WWII. The trip was cancelled because of bad weather but while confined to shore for three days, we discovered pristine beaches that didn’t look much different than when Spanish explorers first slogged ashore in hopes of getting rich quick.

It was truly paradise. The gin-clear shallow bay was full of fish and scallops while the world-class beaches (named “American’s Best Beach” in 2002 by expert Dr. Steven Leatherman, “Dr. Beach” from Florida International University) were considered crowded if five people were within eyesight.

The peninsula that surrounds the bay, Cape San Blas, was miles and miles of dunes and scrub with the occasional fisherman’s house or vacation home. At the height of tourism season, the crowd watching the sunset on the state park beach usually could easily be counted on two hands or less.

It was incredible and I often wrote about it, along with many other people, until the public started to take notice. Our visit last week now makes clear that the word is out, the dream is over, the maddening crowds have descended and things aren’t changing for the better.

There are still no high-rise condominiums but million-dollar beach homes stand within feet of each other, packed onto every square foot of usable waterfront property. The few area restaurants, once laid back and friendly, are now clogged with long lines of sunburned visitors standing outside from 4 p.m. until closing time.

Worse of all is the condition of the beaches. Formerly unspoiled, they are now littered with the flotsam of the rubbish-tossing masses who apparently travel hundreds of miles just for the honor of tossing plastic water bottles onto untrammeled dunes. During our stay, a family next door expended approximately $100,000 worth of thermonuclear military-grade fireworks every night for two hours so that by the end of the week, the beach was littered with drifts of cardboard and plastic shell casings along with the other trash.

The local government has responded swiftly to the garbage onslaught with a regulatory policy known as “Leave No Trace.” Local laws cover what can and cannot be taken to the beach and further direct that nothing can be left on the sand overnight. It’s a great idea, aside from the fact that it is wholly and utterly unenforced.

The moral of the story is simple: we are loving the outdoors to death and the Port
St. Joe and Cape San Blas areas are only the latest victims. After seeing and experiencing the hordes of visitors, ugly in both numbers and attitude, I came home depressed and angry.

What a lovely, restful week on the beach!

I’ve now had a sea-change in attitude toward land development and the long-term wisdom of bulldozing untouched lands, wherever they exist, in our haste build weird beach homes and go-kart tracks. That is quite a transformation for a staunch free-market capitalist. Likewise, the microscopic hope that people can minimally behave themselves while outdoors was crushed under the boot heel of a pyromaniac family from Georgia.

To the reader: whenever you play the role of tourist, pick up after yourself and don’t be a loud, obnoxious slob. Don’t be rude and inconsiderate, even if everyone else is; the outdoors isn’t a big frat party with no rules.

As for me, I’m looking for a new paradise. When I do rest assured I’ll keep my big mouth, and computer keyboard, shut.

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Brent Wheat

A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of WildIndiana.com

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