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Briggs: Spring break amid a changing environment

I haven’t been on spring break in years. But when my friend Wren, a Cherokee first grade teacher from Northwest Oregon, asked me to join her on spring break in Florida, I could hardly say no.

Baby boomers are the new face of spring break in the Sunshine State. Gone along with easy credit for the collegiate set are the days of wild parties on Fort Lauderdale beaches. Florida still enjoys more than 80 million visitors a year, a number that dwarfs the state’s population of 18 million.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Gone along with easy credit for the collegiate set are the days of wild parties on Fort Lauderdale beaches.

Flying into Tampa, it’s clear that underneath the high rises and shopping malls that most of this state is little more than a spit of sand beneath a dome of sky, bordered by pale green. From the air, you can almost see the land, elevation sea level, separating from water.

Our destination was a spa resort in Safety Harbor, a town on Tampa Bay. Since the 1930s the mineral springs by the bay have been tapped for therapeutic use, but as I floated for days in the springs’ silky water, I couldn’t help wonder who used these waters before us.

Blocks away the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History held some of the answers. The little museum, which clearly doesn’t often have Indian visitors, celebrates the Tocobaga Indians who lived on Florida’s West Coast for millennia before the first Spaniard arrived. More than 200 miles to the south the Miccosukee survived the European invasion in the Everglades. The Tocobaga, like many other indigenous peoples in Florida, died in the 1500s from the invaders’ diseases.

The Tocobaga are responsible for the mounds at Philippe Park in Safety Harbor, several hundred feet tall and wide like a small hill. They are made from millions of tiny shells piled around support beams. Each shell is punched with a tiny square hole, as I realized when I rescued a small shell from certain lawn mower destruction, returning it to its mound. Books have been written about, and museums dedicated to, them.

My friend’s father loved these mounds. Working and raising a family in St. Petersburg, Fla., this Eastern Band Cherokee man visited the mounds regularly, in his own private way holding ceremony. He was furious, his daughter remembers, when one mound was leveled and a picnic area built on top of it. But this is the way these engineered marvels have been treated for generations, ground up for roads and driveways. The shell fragments remain omnipresent in pavement.

On this sub-tropic coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the signs of ancient life are very much in evidence even despite sprawling cities. The manatee, the 1,000-pound sea creatures, whose closest relative is the elephant, still swim in the area, only in reduced numbers. They once gathered around warm springs, perhaps, like the ones that feed the spa. Now that the springs have been built over, tapped or bottled, the manatee gather around the outflow from industry, including two nuclear power plants in the area.

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“They go by the hundred, body to body,” said Jay Liles, Florida Wildlife Federation.

When I ask whether the outflow is safe, he says that the gentle giants are at greater risk of being killed or maimed by boat propellers than polluted water.

I’ll hear this sentiment again when I ask the Miccosukee Tribe’s spokeswoman Joette Lorion, about global warming-affected sea levels. She answers, “We’ll be drowned by the Department of Interior before then,” referring to policies of flooding the central Everglades that the tribe manages.

A tourist paradise can be tough on Native peoples, and other living creatures.

Liles sparks my interest when he mentions long-range plans to help the endangered Florida panther and bears, which were brought back from the brink of extinction 30 years ago, migrate across the interstates. Warming temperatures are expected to drive the trademark animals of this state’s wild lands north, perhaps, as far as the Carolinas. Already animals are on the move.

Late one night, we notice an egret standing in Tampa Bay at the edge of the city light fall, fishing. Wren says, “There is probably no peaceful time in the day for them. They’ve likely evolved locally over generations as the town grew.”

The coming climate crisis promises change dramatic and swift, said climatologists gathered at a 2008 conference by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Like Alaska, a state as different from Florida as any in the union, the forces of global warming stand to wreak havoc with life as it is now lived. In Alaska four indigenous villages – Newtok, Shishmaref, Kivalina and Koyukuk – are in imminent danger from rising waters. By mid-century, the village in Florida most at risk of rising sea levels is Miami, along with the urbanized barrier islands like St. Pete Beach in the central state.

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