Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Paradise Lost

They paved paradise and put up a parkin’ lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

                              –Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

I can’t help it. Every time I pick up the book, the song runs through my head.

It’s the end of August.  The days are shorter, the sand is cooler and it’s time to put away the books of summer– the beach reads and escapes into imagined landscapes of high adventure and romance lulled by the soothing sound of water.

For the transition I’m recommending “Paving Paradise, Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss” by Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite, two ace reporters at the St. Petersburg Times who have been writing about wetlands and, more importantly, writing well for many years.

I knew without even reading the fly jacket that this book was going to be full of sad stories of wetlands lost.  And I have to admit I was a little reluctant to start.  But it’s a great read because these reporters probably know more about wetlands policy than any other journalists on the planet.  They’ve crafted a newsy, story-filled account of the evolution of wetland policy nationally and its application in Florida, the state that has filled more wetlands than any other in the Union.

From the opening pages I found myself wondering—could they get this right?

They’ve done a surprisingly good job.  I say ‘surprisingly’ because making sense of the complicated and sometimes contradictory world of dredge and fill permitting is a challenging task for people working within the permitting agencies.  The authors were bound to have a hard time getting access to information– to pull all the behind-the-scenes pieces together into a coherent narrative.  They succeeded.  They have expertly lined up a string of stories that each build on the one before it to provide a bird’s eye view of how wetland policy evolved to be what it is today.

From page 2 when Pittman and Waite looked at the numbers behind the announcement in 2006 that the nation had achieved ‘no net loss’, I found myself checking my own personal knowledge of the events described in the book against the authors’.   Did they get it right?  Pretty much.  Did I agree with the authors’ interpretations and conclusions?  Not always.  But I had a great time checking my experiences against their research and they did a remarkably good job identifying key decision points in national policy.

What makes this book worthwhile for wetland professionals is there is nothing else like it.  It’s a chance to look back over where we have been and think about what happened and why it happened.  From the evolution of wetland regulatory programs to the current reliance on mitigation, to the difficulty balancing private and public interests and through the behind the scenes political pressures—Paradise Lost provides a hard look at the successes and failures in wetland regulatory policy.

At the end, the authors provide some recommendations on how to improve federal and state programs.  What’s illuminating is that this is not a long list and it is very doable.  In a sense, they end where John Milton did in his epic poem sending his protagonists off with a final message of hope and possibility.

                  The World was all before them, where to choose
                  Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
                  They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
                  Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.
                                                         –Paradise Lost, John Milton

Paving Paradise Website:

Paving Paradise Blog: Interview with the authors on Political Whore:

Book Reviews

St. Petersburg Newspaper: 

Review: Wetland ‘Expose’ Misses the Mark:

Book Excerpt:

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