EarthFirst fights to save Florida forest from biotech development listen04/08/11 Kelly Benjamin
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In South Florida, a battle is brewing between environmental activists and biotech company Scripps Florida over the last remaining forest land in Eastern Palm Beach County. But the battle is about much more than saving a piece of forest land from development.
If you happened to be driving down Interstate-95 near Jupiter, Florida last month you might have seen an interesting sight: Two people, camped out 30 feet up in a pine tree with a banner reading "Defend this Forest."
"We built the tree sit primarily to serve as a deterrent to show the investors and the folks who had a stake in the Scripps biotech project that there was a resistance building on the ground and that the cost for moving forward was going to be high."
That's Panagioti Tsolkas, an activist with Everglades Earth First, an organization that has been working against Scripps Florida for several years and which has been successful in helping to halt a previous Scripps development in the environmentally sensitive area near Loxahatchee, Florida in 2005. Now Scripps hopes to move the project, phase two of their "Biotech City" to the Briger Forest, a 680 acre parcel of pine flatwood forest next to Florida Atlantic University.
"This habitat is really important endangered species habitat. It's pretty rare to find a forest like this east of I-95 in particular this eastern corridor which is home to scrub habitat, one of the most rare in all of Florida along the Atlantic Coastal ridge."
So, in order to save this piece of forest from development, Earth First held a tree sit, a form of environmental civil disobedience common in threatened old growth forests on the West Coast, but almost unheard of here in Florida.
"The hardest part was coming down. Yeah, definitely."
Rachel Kigewski is an activist with Everglades EarthFirst.
"I spent a total of 15 or 16 days being outside and being directly connected with nature and living right n trees. How many people get that opportunity and experience? It's incredible."
The tree sit lasted a total of 5 weeks and received some local press in Palm Beach County before eventually being shut down by the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department on March 21st. Police arrested two EarthFirst activists for trespassing and then did something unexpected: they cut down the pine tree the activists were sitting in. As well as several other trees in the vicinity. Again Panagioti Tsolkas:
"They proceeded to brag about how they had cut the trees at the other tree sit as well, at that point we didn't know who had cut the trees."
The Palm Beach Gardens Police have refused to comment on the incident but Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus says that it was the Police Chief and a city official who ordered the trees cut down.
"The City of Palm Beach Gardens-that was their strategy to prevent it from happening. I found out about it after the fact-if they would have asked me in the beginning I would have said 'Please don't chop the trees down.' I personally thought it was kind of dumb for them to chop down the trees. I did call the Assistant County Administrator who authorized that and told her that I didn't want any more trees cut down."
Despite Marcus's disappointment about the trees, she does defend the Scripps Biotech development in the Briger Forest.
"This property now has all of it's development approvals. It's where development needs to occur if we are going to have development, not out west. It's on major highways. So it's a perfect for the spin offs that will come to Palm Beach County. That property was going to be developed as something anyway, now it's going to be biotech."
Advocates of the biotechnology industry in Florida see it as a way to jump start the state's sputtering economy. Since 2003, Florida taxpayers have invested over $1.5 billion in the biotech industry, creating just over one thousand jobs. Some lawmakers in Tallahassee are beginning to question whether that investment is worth it. One is State Senator Gwen Margolis.
"We put out about a billion and a half dollars over a period of 2 or 3 years to attract new biotech businesses into Florida and the total result was about 1,100 jobs something like that and Scripps was about 550 and they got over half a billion dollars. It's the return on investment that I question."
Margolis says she would rather see the state invest in businesses that promise more jobs for the dollar. Alan Stonecipher with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy agrees.
"The Scripps thing is only 300 million times bigger than some of these other things but it is what the state has gotten itself into doing which is what can very well be called corporate welfare. At a time when we are having to cut K-12 spending by several hundred dollars per student I would say it's not a good deal for the state."
Scripps Florida's media relations did not return several phone calls to comment on this story but Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus says that research institutions such as the Scripps Florida facility serve as magnets for long term economic development.
"Right after we made the initial investment in Scripps Max Plank Society showed up. They are nowhere in this country, they could have gone to Massachusetts or the research triangle and they came to Jupiter, Florida. They are a big company that will attract others."
Yet, EarthFirst's Tsokkas soesnt buy it and points out that a recent development Abacoa Town Center directly across the street from the Briger Forest next to Florida Atlantic University, is facing tough times.
"The South Florida Business Journal reported that the entire Abacoa Town Center went up for foreclosure auction in January of this year and that development was heralded as the new urban dreamland. They cleared hundreds of acres of forest to build that and tried to sell it as green and they were using native plants. Then a decade down the line the place is going to sit in a wasteland. None of the sprinklers are going to turn on probably and you're going to watch all of those plants that were planted in the medians die and houses sit empty and that's what'll happen if they clear the land at Briger Forest as well."
EarthFirst activists have vowed to continue their fight to save the Briger Forest. On April Fool's Day, an activist in Joker-style face paint staged a tree sit in a pine tree directly in front of Palm Beach Gardens City Hall. Authorities removed the protester with a crane but this time, they decided not to cut down the tree.
Funding for this report was provided by the community at Spot.Us
[Previous WMNF coverage on Scripps biotech development](http://www.wmnf.org/news_stories?tag=Scripps