See no evil


Published: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 at 8:45 p.m.

The great naturalist William Bartram sailed the mighty St. Johns River in 1791 and waxed poetic about the paradise he found.

“What an Elysium it is!” he gushed.

Or maybe not so much.

In his new book, “William Bartram and the Ghost Plantations of British East India,” historian Daniel L. Schafer points out that large agricultural enterprises fairly lined the river by the time Bartram passed through.

“Assuming that these were not ghost plantations shrouded in ethereal mist as Bartram sailed by, one must ask if Bartram forgot many of the specific details of his Florida experiences,” Schafer wonders.

Most likely, Bartram had contracted a malady endemic to Florida known as myopic hucksterism.

Its victims see what they want to see and gloss over the ugly little defects.

These days, the St. Johns is known less for ghost plantations than giant green blooms of algae.

Groups like St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Putnam County Environmental Council keep warning that William Bartram's one-time Elysium is a river in distress, besotted with nutrient-laden farm, industrial and waste-treatment runoff.

“This past year has been a tough one for our St. Johns River,” reports Riverkeeper. “The river has suffered from massive fish kills, widespread algal blooms, mysterious foam and an unprecedented number of dolphin deaths.”

And here's the reaction they get from our politicians:

Giant green blooms?

What blooms?

Ghost blooms, maybe.

Myopic hucksterism is epidemic in Tallahassee. Everybody from Gov. Rick Scott to the janitor who sweeps up at DEP blandly insists that tougher federal runoff rules aren't needed because the state already does a fine job protecting its waterways, thank you very much.

Anyway, there are still parts of the St. Johns that appear pretty much the same as when Bartram sailed by with eyes wide shut. Just so long as you don't look too close.

Next month, Feb. 18-20, the Putnam County Environmental Council will host its 5th annual Rally for the Rivers weekend in Palatka (www.pcecweb.org). It's a periodic attempt to cure myopic hucksterism by showing politicians, businesspeople and ordinary Floridians that there is both ecological and economic value in keeping Florida's mightiest river viable.

The event is an eclectic mixture of art and music festival and conservation seminars. Among its goals: to “help us draw attention to the resources that are critical to developing a viable nature-based tourism industry.”

The St. Johns is at one and the same time listed among a handful of American Heritage Rivers and one of the 10 most-endangered rivers in America.

We can brag about the former while conveniently overlooking the latter.

But myopic hucksterism won't shield us from the odious consequences of drowning a great river in our wastes.

Even ghost algal blooms will eventually come back to haunt us.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. Contact him at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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