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Society and Community:
The Future of the Florida Panhandle
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In the heart of Florida’s Panhandle, a million untouched acres of forests, wetlands, swamps, coastline and beachfront could become casualties of development. The St. Joe Company, a former paper company and Florida’s largest private landowner, is undertaking an unprecedented development project that will forever change an area that experts say is one of the most environmentally sensitive in the nation. Although the St. Joe Company has promoted its plans as environmentally friendly and capable of attracting affluent settlers with money to invest in the local economy, not all residents are convinced this will be a good thing for the region. Read more about the ecology and history of Florida in the articles below.

Florida Panhandle: Geography and Ecology
The Northwest Florida area — known as the Panhandle because it looks like a handle on the rest of the state — is home to upland glades, pitcher-plant bogs, cypress swamps and hardwood forests. The area extends from Pensacola at the western end of the state to the Apalachee Bay and the Apalachicola National Forest. The Panhandle is the location of the largest longleaf pine forest left in the world, along the border of Florida and Alabama, and Apalachicola Bay is one of the country's most pristine estuaries.

The Florida Panhandle supports tree farming, timber, agriculture and fisheries, all important parts of the economy. Many rare animals thrive in this region, including the Eastern Chipmunk, the Peregrine Falcon, the threatened Florida Black Bear, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker, and the Pine Barrens Treefrog. In the Panhandle wetlands, one might encounter the American Alligator, the endangered West Indian Manatee, Bald Eagles, Snowy Egret and Atlantic Loggerhead Turtle. (Learn about the species that inhabit Florida's counties by visiting Florida Natural Areas Inventory.)

In addition, three major rivers of this region, the Escambia River, the Choctawhatchee River, and the Apalachicola River have very high populations of rare fish species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world: the Okaloosa Darter, the Bluestripe Shiner, and the Florida Logperch.

Some environmentalists worry that poorly planned development and pollutants could threaten the intricate habitats of the Panhandle, as well as the fisheries and oyster beds which are vital to the local economy. Therefore, organizations such as 1000 Friends of Florida, and The Nature Conservancy are keeping a close watch on development plans in the Florida Panhandle.

Florida Panhandle: History and Future
The first evidence of human activity in Florida dates back at least 12,000 years. Sea level at that time was much lower and the peninsula was twice as large as it is today. The first record of Europeans arriving in Florida was the Spanish Juan Ponce de Leon expedition in 1513. It was at this time that the land was dubbed "la Florida" by Ponce de Leon in honor of the Feast of the Flowers (Pascua florida), an Eastertime celebration in Spain. (To read the full story of Florida's colonization and history as a territory, visit the Florida Division of Historical Resources.)

Florida was admitted to the union in 1845, when it became the 27th state in the United States under Governor William D. Moseley. During the final quarter of the 19th century, agriculture and tourism in Florida began to grow, and investors became interested in extraction of resources from the water and land. By the turn of the century, population and per capita wealth were on the rise, and by the end of World War I, land developers were taking advantage of Florida's appeal as a vacation spot.

Since the major economic development of the World War II era, Florida has been a locus of steady population growth, as people from other states, as well as countries such as Cuba and Haiti have been attracted by the year-round mild climate.

Although the southern part of Florida is better known as a popular vacation spot, the Panhandle boasts of natural beauty. Home of Florida's capital city, Tallahassee, the Northwest region has recently gotten attention as the site of new development.

Currently, a controversial development plan would include a new airport to be built north of Panama City, replacing the existing Bay County-Panama City International Airport. The future of the region is still uncertain, as some residents worry about the damage that may be done to the delicate ecosystems and the resources on which the state's economy relies. However, the development plan has the support of state Governor Jeb Bush, who said, "If we build the field of dreams and limit government more good things will happen in our state than if we tried to mandate or tax or spend our way to prosperity."

What are your thoughts on the future of the Florida Panhandle? Talk back on our discussion boards.

Sources: Associated Press, Florida Division of Historical Resources, Florida Natural Areas Inventory, 1000 Friends of Florida.

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