County population growth can lead to environmental issues

Groups of tourists and residence ignore pots full of trash on a sunny day on St. George Street in downtown St. Augustine. As population continues to increase the people of St. Johns County may be in for a rude awakening regarding the environment of their local beach town. Photo credit: Donna Snyder

By Donna Snyder |

As populations continue to rise, there is an increase in the influence people have on the environment and politics, leading us to a separation in community and directly impacting our coastal towns.

According to the United States Census Bureau, there has been a 23.7 percent increase in St. Johns County’s population from April 2010 to July 2015, and the increase is only expected to continue with new developments.

Flagler College coastal environmental science major, Whitney Glinton, is one of many individuals in the area who has noticed the effects this increase is having.

“People see Florida as a place to ‘get away from your city [busy] life.’ Florida is like the California of the east coast. It’s unrealistic that people will stop coming, but the government needs more (environmental) regulations–county regulations. Things have to start locally,” Glinton said.

However, Dr. Matthew Brown, a professor of natural sciences at Flagler College, said there have already been height limits put on buildings in downtown St. Augustine, in addition to over 40,000 acres of preserved wetlands up the coast of Vilano Beach, but population is still becoming an increasing problem. The stalled traffic causes an increase in harmful exhaust emissions, he said.

“I remember just five or six years ago it wasn’t a big deal to get caught coming across the Bridge of Lions because it would only take a few minutes,” Brown said. “Now, the [Bridge of Lions] goes down and you’re stuck coming in from the beach side and the drawbridge is a 30-minute wait.”

Flagler College student Amanda Aydlett agreed that one of noticeable differences over the past few years is the amount of traffic that accumulates on the Bridge of Lions.

“For the people who have been here for a while, one of the major cons of population growth is the traffic, especially downtown and over the Bridge of Lions.  More people means more cars, which means more carbon emissions,” Aydlett said.

Brown also said he’s seen a significant correlation between science and current politics, causing more of a separation among individuals than a community, and suggests students and individuals get involved politically in addition to clubs around campus, like Sustain. Sustain informs students about how what they eat affects the planet and fights back against Western food consumption problems.

Glinton said, as a science major, she is concerned about the impact humans could be having on the local environment regarding aspects such as loss in species, pollution and dredging – the removal sediments and debris from bodies of water.

“Animals are being greatly impacted by [population growth]. As a science major, we’ve worked with Fort Matanzas and last time we went they were telling us about the loss of least terns [species of birds] and how they had to have the river dredge,” Glinton said.

She said her best advice for both residence and tourists would be to, “Wake up, be considerate and everything will be better.”

Fort Matanzas’ natural resource management specialist, Kurt Foote, said the problems of population growth, in addition to expanding on the disappearance of least terns.

“Whenever you add that many people to a confined space there are going to be effects,” Foote said.

Many new residents want a fresh slate, causing an increase in deforestation “to make room for the [new] homes, roads, and landscaping.”

Foote said that not only are woods and fields home to plants and animals, which are eliminated or displaced during developments, but the ecosystem services – like oxygen production, water filtration and serving as habitat for pollinators – they provided, are lost or severely diminished by the continuous rise in population.

Whether the increase in people migrating to the area is for temporary or permanent residence, everyone should be accountable for the upkeep of the environment.

“The local economy may benefit from more tourists, but not so much for the environment.  One of the major cons of tourism that I have seen is pollution.  The people who live here are more appreciative of the environment, but I see tourists litter streets and beaches because they don’t have that same connection with the environment,” Adylett said.

There are two main causes of the drastic decrease in least terns in St. Augustine, and they both can be caused by the influence of humans: land erosion and animal displacement, Foote said.

“Since 2014 the beach and dunes had been experiencing relentless erosion from storms and high tides. If the theories are correct that higher sea levels and more intense storm events are the results of a warming climate and ocean, then the erosion of the park’s beaches can be tied back to climate change and thus human activity,” Foote said.

Regarding animal displacement, there has been an increase in non-native mammalian predators, such as red fox and coyote in the area, due to people converting large areas of Florida’s natural landscape to commercial and residential development, Foote said.

These animals have been forced to adapt to these new areas of displacement, which are creating detrimental effects for the species already inhabiting the area.

Foote wants St. Johns County residents and tourists to be mindful that individual actions can become very significant in both positive and negative contexts.

“When many people reduce what they purchase, re-use something instead of buying new, and recycling their discards, it makes a huge difference in the amount of raw materials that need to be extracted from nature in the first place,” he said.

However, Foote said negative individual actions can be just as significant.

“Littering or walking through the dunes or driving on the beach may not seem that destructive when one person does it, but when compounded by many instances, the environment begins to suffer,” Foote said.

People need to be aware that population equals power and that power can be used for sustainability instead of destruction, he said.

“A collective voice carries immense persuasive power,” Foote said.

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