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Stories from the Sunshine State: Archaeology sites, manatee threats, property rights

FPAN's Mike Thomin, standing, and graduate student Jeffery Robinson display a 3-D laser scan of the rapidly eroding Butcherpen Mound on Naval Live Oaks property in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Sandra Averhart
FPAN's Mike Thomin, standing, and graduate student Jeffery Robinson display a 3-D laser scan of the rapidly eroding Butcherpen Mound on Naval Live Oaks property in Gulf Breeze, Florida.

For the end of the year, The Florida Roundup gathered reporting from public radio stations around the state.

Protected from development, but still vulnerable to climate change

Climate change is affecting the entire planet, and with copious coastlines and low elevations, Florida is on the front lines.

It affects everything from insurance rates to daily commutes. And it’s affecting the archaeologists trying to collect critical data on some of the 16,000-plus at-risk sites in the state.

Sandra Averhart from member station WUWF in Pensacola reported on how the Florida Public Archaeology Network is racing to document those sites while they can still access them.

Mike Thomin, a staff member at FPAN and a faculty research associate at the University of West Florida, said the northwest region of the state is home to all sorts of interesting sites and artifacts covering numerous periods in history, including a lot of indigenous sites.

“Native Americans were here first for a very, very long time so [there's] quite a bit of that material. When we were on Fort Pickens area, there is a civil war battlefield site there. There's stuff from World War II. There's a colonial Spanish site there, right on Fort Pickens area.”

In the Blackwater River State Forest, there's a lot of evidence of the region's early 20th century turpentine industry.

“The turpentine industry was huge around this area,” Thomin said. “It has a whole, really kind of sad, dark history to that with the prison labor camps. So when you find those turpentine cups out there, those are related to that part of our history in the state of Florida, which a lot of people don't know a lot about, about how that whole prison camp system functioned and how it targeted African American men."

The FPAN team wrapped up its state-funded study of cultural heritage sites threatened by the effects of climate change this summer and submitted its final report to the state this fall. Read more about their findings here.

If manatees are doing better, why are so many of them starving to death?

Manatees saw an incredibly deadly year in 2021. A record 1,083 of them perished in Florida waters, according to state data released last week. WMFE’s Amy Green reports the calamity comes four years after the manatee was declared on the way to recovery and actually down listed from endangered to threatened.

At a SeaWorld rehabilitation center, Jon Peterson, the vice president of zoological operations, was watching a manatee lying still in a medical pool. She was too weak to swim. Every so often he lifted her whiskery snout so she could breathe. Her body was slender, not like that of a chunky manatee she should have been.

This manatee was one of the lucky ones. Out of the staggering number of deaths this year in Florida, many are related to the kind of starvation this manatee suffered from. More than half of the deaths are in the Indian River Lagoon, a biologically diverse East Coast estuary where ongoing water quality problems have led to a widespread loss of sea grass, the manatees’ preferred food. Environmental groups say on Florida's east coast, some 20 percent of the manatee population has been wiped out.

Two Florida congressional leaders, Reps. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) and Vern Buchanan (R-Sarasota), have filed legislation aimed at restoring the manatees’ endangered status. Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, says the down listing not only was premature, but neglected scientifically documented warning signs at the time that manatees were in trouble.

What concerns Peterson, who is part of the team supervising the manatee’s care at SeaWorld, is that starvation involves a much longer recovery than other threats like red tide, which takes two to three weeks to treat. For starvation, recovery is six to eight months. He worries about running out of space at the rehabilitation center should another die-off occur. He's working with other partner organizations to move more healthy manatees elsewhere to free up SeaWorld's medical pools for more fragile animals.

“We’ve worked so hard on the plight of the manatee over the last 25 years, getting them back off the endangered species list,” he told WMFE in September. “If that number continues, a population that’s got … 8,000 in it unfortunately will go back to endangered very quickly, and if we’re not able to curb it, it could get worse. That is the fear here.”

When inheriting property leads to the loss of generational land

Heirs’ property, a form of land ownership that's caused many families — primarily Black families — to lose millions of acres over the past 100 years. African Americans, who owned roughly 15 million acres in 1910, lost up to 90 percent of their land by 2007.

Nationwide, Black homeownership has declined for much of the past 20 years. It remained at 42 percent from 2016-2018, a rate as low as it was in 1970. Meanwhile, the rate of white homeownership rose to a record high of 73 percent in 2019.

Dylan Klempner and Sky Lebron with WUFT looked at how heirs' property has impacted families throughout North Florida, and how public officials, community groups, and attorneys are helping to prevent more land loss.

“Families are not leaving wills,” said attorney LaTonya Lipscomb Smith with Three Rivers Legal Services in Jacksonville. “They're not dealing the property through right of survivorship. And when you're not deeded the property through right of survivorship, you have to go through probate in order to get proper title. “

Owners of heirs’ property can experience a lot of related problems because they can't prove that they have clear ownership, which is called a clear title.

“Clear title is the nucleus of this whole issue. If you do not have clear title, you cannot do all of those things. You cannot get FEMA relief. You are not able to modify that mortgage and get the mortgage into your name,” she said. “You are not able to get those property exemptions on the home. And also keep in mind, there's more than just that homestead exemption. There's a whole laundry list of exemptions that you could be applicable for heirs.”

Property is also vulnerable to real estate speculators and predatory developers who have used ambiguous laws and tax details to acquire land at cut rate prices. But clearing the title of an heirs’ property can also be costly.

“It's just insurmountable. And then you're also dealing with, especially with us, low income family members. It's just too much,” she said.

While it's difficult to accurately quantify the amount of heirs’ property in the U.S., recent estimates from ProPublica and the New Yorker magazine have a third of land owned by Black families in the South, as heirs’ property — equal to 3.5 million acres valued at $28 billion.

Listen to WUFT's entire series about how Gainesville leaders are making a push to help Black families hold onto their property.

The long, strange history of local gun regulation in Florida

Local governments in Florida are banned from passing their own gun regulations and that has frustrated some cities and counties. But to understand why that ban is in place, you've got to go back a few decades.

WLRN’s Danny Rivero and Caitie Muñoz explored how gun laws went from local decisions to state policies in Florida on the podcast Tallahassee Takeover.

Dade County passed what would today have been considered a strict gun law back in 1966 that forced gun dealers to tell police the names of anyone who bought guns and created a three-day waiting period for buying handguns. And since there were no restrictions on passing local gun laws, every city and every town had flexibility and they could respond to things that happened immediately.

In 1982, a man bought a shotgun, then walked into a welding shop and opened fire with a shotgun, killing eight employees. Days later, the city of Hialeah passed a three-day waiting period on buying rifles and shotguns.

By the mid 1980s, according to the National Rifle Association, Florida had more than 400 local gun laws — mostly south of Orlando.

“It was difficult, if you had a firearm and you had different regulations in different locations, it was hard to keep track of everything,” said Jim Naugle, who was serving on the Fort Lauderdale City Commission at the time. “It would be as if cities or counties started regulating automobiles, and you could drive certain automobiles in some cities or counties. That just didn't make any sense.”

By 1987, the state government said ‘no more.’ The Legislature passed a blanket ban across the whole state. That Legislature, both the state House and Senate, were controlled by Democrats at the time.

Gov. Bob Martinez, who signed the bill, was a Republican.

Listen to the full Tallahassee Takeover episode on how the state leaders took over Florida's gun laws here.

More local control may be in the offing — on one issue

Even as state lawmakers have taken some decisions away from local governments, Regan McCarthy at WFSU in Tallahassee reports a new bill for the upcoming legislative session would allow local regulations over smoking at public parks and beaches.

A few years ago, the city of Sarasota wanted to pass a local ordinance regulating smoking at a public beach. But the city was sued and told it could not do that, and only the Legislature has the power.

State Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) said cigarette smoke and the trash often left behind by smokers can make a day at the beach less pleasant.

When they do beach cleanups in his area, “they get buckets and buckets of these cigarette butts,” he said.

Gruters has proposed a bill that would give city and county governments the ability to make ordinances about smoking at parks and beaches. They could choose to allow smoking, ban it outright or limit it to certain areas. Last year, he sponsored similar legislation.

The bill would give each community flexibility to make the best choices for their residents and visitors, said Mark Ryan, the city manager for Indian Harbor Beach.

“All we're asking for is an ability for local governments, if they choose, to establish smoke free zones or designated smoking areas in a public park. They may not choose. It's going to be a local decision,” he said.

Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) said typically lawmakers face pushback from local government when they pass preemption bills — measures that remove local government control on specific issues and preempt it to the state.

“I hope everybody's getting the fliers ready to go that we voted for local control, because we're always getting hammered, that we're taking everybody's control away. We're voting for local control today. So have at it, make rules that work for your community? I'm for it.”

Gruters’ bill unanimously passed its first committee.

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