Fighting for land surrounding Biscayne Bay is vital to sustaining fragile ecosystem

Protecting Biscayne Bay isn’t just about what goes into the water. It’s also about monitoring what we do with the land surrounding this fragile eco-system.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Protecting Biscayne Bay isn’t just about what goes into the water. It’s also about monitoring what we do with the land surrounding this fragile eco-system.

Keeping a watchful eye over it all for more than three decades is Lee Hefty.

After 31 years of service, and 11 as director, Hefty is retiring from Miami-Dade County’s Division of Environmental Resource Management.

“I’ve actually been coming to this area since the early 70s,” he said. “This is very rare, unique habitat.”

Before he leaves DERM, Hefty wanted to show something to Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre.

It’s a marsh made up of spartina, a saltwater sawgrass.

“Spartina is a natural habitat that was here, more plentiful back before development occurred,” he said.

The last 67 acres of the marsh remain just north of Deering Estate in Palmetto Bay, a critical parcel acquired and managed by DERM’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program, or EEL, a key component in helping Miami-Dade stay resilient.

“Nature really works for us,” Hefty said. “It works for us by providing a place for water to go.”

Miami-Dade voters green lit the program in the early 90s to generate tax dollars and help the county buy these kinds of endangered lands and preserve them forever.

“It’s a tremendous investment that we’ve made in the quality of life for this generation and our children and their grandchildren,” Hefty said.

The critical ecosystem, right off the shores of Biscayne Bay, is comprised of 78 native plants that play a vital role in protecting the county’s water resources.

“This is the last step for water on its journey towards Biscayne Bay, just beyond those mangroves, and the distance is Biscayne Bay,” Hefty said.

The spartina marsh serves a very important purpose. It acts as nature’s filter, filtering out all those deadly nutrients from fertilizer runoff, septic leaks and dirty storm water before they have a chance to flow into the bay.

And it acts as a natural buffer zone, together with the mangroves that line the shore, it helps protect nearby homes and businesses from storm surge and a rising sea water.

“It’s a place for the water to go, so rather than water flooding your house or being in your living room, it goes to these natural areas,” Hefty said.

It also purifies the area’s drinking water.

“We have some of the cleanest water in I believe the nation, and it’s thanks to these wetlands,” said EEL director Janet Gil.

Since its inception, the program has acquired 18,000 acres of land, all purchased from private owners who want to give back to nature instead of seeing it developed.

“Without them, and their ability to sell to us and their willingness to do so, we would not own these critical pieces, so it is fundamental and purchasing it so that you can preserve it,” said Gil.

There are still 33,000 acres in Miami-Dade County that EEL has identified for acquisition.

Funding is used to not only purchase new land, but to also enhance and restore the 27,000 acres EEL presently manages.

But resources-are running low, and the county must step up if EEL is to continue.

For Gil, it is essential.

“You wouldn’t be able to live here without it,” she said. “It’s fundamental to the resilience of this county and its existence into the future.”

From day 1 at DERM, Hefty has fought for South Florida’s backyard.

“It’s time for the next generation to step forward,” he said. “And when I think about the future of this community, the pressure to preserve what we have is only getting more important as time goes by.

Hefty’s last battle was to persuade to board of county commissioners to not move the urban development boundary.

“It doesn’t make sense to replace agriculture with warehouses when we still need food,” he said.

At issue, 800 acres of farm land in south Miami-Dade that sit outside the urban development boundary that developers want buy to build an industrial park, but that environmentalists say would affect Everglades and Biscayne Bay restoration.

“We can’t use up all the environment have nothing left,” Hefty said.

A final vote is expected next week.

Hefty, meanwhile, is preparing to leave his position with a heavy heart.

“Mixed emotions. It’s been a hard job. But I dedicated my life to this,” he said. “I care very much about my community. And I hope people do too.

“Living in paradise comes with a responsibility to preserve it, so that it continues to be the place that we all invested in.”

Hefty’s last day at DERM will be Friday.

We thank him for his 31 years of service to our community.

The Miami-Dade County Commission will have the final vote on whether or not to move the urban development boundary on June 1, this time without a public hearing.

If this is important to you, contact your county commissioner and let them know how you feel.

For more information on the EEL, click here.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.