The Florida Keys are an environmental marvel. This 120-mile-long archipelago of coral cays that stretches from Key Largo to Key West divides the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west and even extends to the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas, uninhabited islands separated from the rest of the Florida Keys by the Boca Grande Channel. The habitats along the island chain are home to dozens of animals not found anywhere else in the country, like the Key deer, the Florida Keys mole skink and the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary both protects North America’s only coral barrier reef and contains over 6,000 distinct marine and avian species.
On the homo sapiens side, the population of the Florida Keys hovers close to 80,000 inhabitants with a density of 532.34 people per square mile (compared with an average 353.4 people per square mile for the entire state of Florida). And in Key West, the population density shoots to a shocking 4,176 people per square mile. Given the sheer number of humans in the Florida Keys and the amount of commercial fishing and tourism that occur in our waters and on land, the fact that the water is still crystal clear and our ecological diversity is as robust as it is would seem miraculous. And it would be, if not for the work of watchdog organizations like Keys Last Stand.
Last Stand was organized in 1987 in response to the uncontrolled development that overtook Key West in the mid-’80s and threatened the quality of life, the island’s antiquated infrastructure and the sanctity of the local environment. Although other local environmental organizations promoted conservationist principles, they often engaged apolitically on single issues and then went silent once those issues were resolved. To supplement the efforts of those organizations, the founders of Last Stand sought to create a permanent institution that would endeavor to preserve paradise on all fronts.
Officially, Last Stand’s mission is to “promote, preserve and protect the quality of life in the city of Key West, the Florida Keys and their environs, with particular emphasis on the natural environment” and the unique environmental aspects of life in the Keys, through research, education, outreach and action. The organization’s board members review agendas of public meetings, prepare public statements, attend policy and planning meetings at local municipality and county levels and generally keep aware of how state and federal actions may affect Monroe County. Last Stand works with advocacy groups, policymakers and Monroe County residents to stay informed on current and upcoming issues that impact the local environment and the people who live here.
Ann Olsen, who moved to the Keys with her husband in 2005, joined the board of Last Stand in January 2018 after collaborating with the organization on a project about the increasing population density in and overdevelopment of the Florida Keys.
“What I liked about Last Stand is that the organization is comprised of collaborative people and I respected the way that they went about working on things,” Olsen said. “Not only did they want to focus on critical issues with respect to environmental concerns and quality of life, but there was enough of a group standing behind them that we could put forth educational meetings and seminars to get other folks more aware of what’s happening.”
Olsen and her fellow Last Stand board members are all volunteers who work to protect Key West and the Florida Keys.
“We act predominantly as a ‘watchdog organization,’” she explained. “We go to all the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners board meetings every month, we go to Key West City Council meetings and listen to what’s being presented or promoted and we make it a priority to speak out on issues that are against the public’s interest. Sometimes it’s as simple as speaking out and either supporting or disagreeing, but other times it might be collaborating with other groups that feel the same way we do. And though some of our presentations regard isolated issues of limited duration, we often do get involved with long-term, involved projects.”
One of the long-term projects Last Stand is still heavily invested in, even after all these years, is the overdevelopment of the Keys.
“This has been a many-year project because literally back in the mid-’80s, when water quality was going down in the Keys, the local government recognized that we needed to put growth limitations in place or else we would never be able to maintain the aspects of the environment that make this place unique,” Olsen said. “So back then, the local governments developed land use plans and community plans and in the years since, Last Stand has kept an eye out to see how the policies have changed and whether those changes have a negative impact on the environment.”
Specifically, and reductively, Olsen got involved with Last Stand because of building permits. After Hurricane Irma, Rick Scott, then governor of Florida, offered the Keys 1,300 additional Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) building permits.
“Thirty years ago, local organizations did a whole series of studies regarding carrying capacity,” Olsen said. “The simplest way to describe it is, if a hurricane were coming, all residents would have to be able to get out of the Keys in a 24-hour period. At that time, they said a specific number of additional ROGOs could be allowed and then when we hit that point, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate any more. But after Hurricane Irma, ex-Gov. Scott just issued 1,300 more permits without regard to the studies.”
Even within the Keys, residents are sharply divided on the desirability of the extra building rights. Those in favor cite the units as a much-needed solution to the affordable housing crisis that residents face throughout the Keys, which is what prompted the issuance of the permits to begin with. Those in opposition focus primarily on the impossibility of evacuating so many residents within 24 hours should another hurricane set a course for the Keys, in addition to concerns regarding water quality and carrying capacity should the population density of the Keys increase beyond its already bursting state.
“Last Stand’s stance is that former Gov. Scott’s issuance of those permits ran 100% counter to the concept of limited growth and to 30 years of growth limitations and management policies that said only a certain number of people can live here because we are an island community and too many humans affect water quality, turn the Florida Keys into a not-so-nice place to live and make evacuation in the event of a hurricane even more difficult than it already is,” Olsen said. “And so a lot of people said, ‘Wait a minute — what happened to growth management?’ No additional scientific studies were done to show that it is legal and safe to ignore 30 years of growth management in the Keys by exceeding the previously established maximum buildout.”
Last Stand compiled its data and called in the scientists and began speaking out at county commission and planning commission meetings.
“At one point, hundreds of people were coming into those meetings talking about density concerns and about how much traffic was already out there, much less during a hurricane evacuation,” Olsen said. “We also invited Jonathan Rizzo, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, to one of our Last Stand board meetings to address what happens when we don’t get 24 hours’ notice to evacuate. His presentation was so thorough and impactful that we asked him to make that same presentation to (the county commission) so they could hear the issues and evaluate the data for themselves before they decided how (or whether) to allocate those additional ROGOs. To this day, three years later, there is still an ongoing legal challenge to the additional ROGOs — which we provided financial support to — on appeal in the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. There’s unfortunately only so much we can do, but we try to assist any way we can.”
In addition to discouraging the overdevelopment of the Florida Keys, Last Stand is a fierce champion of the quality of the water that surrounds the islands — and not just from an overfishing and water pollution standpoint.
Two main themes
“Because there are so many environmental concerns in the Keys, Last Stand’s focus is really spread because people come to us for all sorts of issues throughout the Keys,” Olsen said. “Our two overarching themes are overdevelopment and water quality, which are intertwined because too much development will affect water quality. So many of the issues we address are interrelated. For example, when you talk about cruise ships, that dovetails right into the question of water quality.”
Olsen’s reference to cruise ships was in regard to the three controversial charter amendments that were on the ballot in Key West on Nov. 3, 2020. By clear majorities, Key West residents voted to limit the number of people disembarking from commercial cruise ships each day (63%), limit the capacity of the ships that call at Key West’s port (61%) and prioritize ships with the highest environmental and health records (81%).
Ultimately, after reviewing the three cruise ship referenda, the board of Last Stand formally adopted a position of support for all three, as they were “in line with Last Stand’s interest in preserving the Florida Keys’ unique quality of life and our fragile, beautiful natural environment.” Specifically, the board concluded that limiting the size and number of ships that cruise through Key West will benefit juvenile coral growth, reduce particulates from exhaust plumes, improve Key West’s air quality and relieve stress on the coral reefs caused by an excess of excursions.
As with every policy recommendation, Last Stand’s approach to the cruise ship referenda was a highly measured affair.
“Before COVID, we had invited the folks from Safer Cleaner Ships to present to our board and we opened the presentation up to the public and to anyone who wanted to join,” Olsen said. “We also worked on getting the other side of the cruise ship issue presented, and then we went to the Chamber of Commerce to offer all of the data we had gathered. We put together our position, but we also always want to let the public make an informed decision after having heard both sides.”
Ensuring the public has all of the information necessary to weigh the evidence for themselves — and ensuring that the information is well-sourced and trustworthy — is one of the hallmark features of Last Stand.
“We really try to encourage collaboration,” Olsen said. “To that end, we invite different environmental groups, like Miami Waterkeeper and Florida Bay Forever, to a number of our annual meetings and monthly board meetings to discuss what they’re doing on the mainland to address water quality issues. Recently, we’ve focused on collaborating with more local groups on issues like shallow sewage wells, which is not a highly attractive idea but presents a dire problem throughout the Keys nonetheless.”
As far as environmental issues go, shallow sewage wells are hardly sexy, but Last Stand is raising awareness of the perils of improperly disposed of wastewater nevertheless. As of the late ’90s, central sewer systems were a rarity in the Keys. Instead, many wastewater treatment plants utilized shallow injection wells — some merely around 100 feet deep — to dispose of wastewater. Because the Keys are built primarily of fossilized coral, a highly porous material, polluted water was leaking into the canals and onto the shoreline in quantities that were noticeable to local residents. In 2017, the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant was completed, the last of a series of upgrades to Monroe County’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.
Mandated by the state in the ’90s and encouraged by citizen outcry, the Cudjoe plant was outfitted with a well about 3,000 feet deep where it could collect the partially treated effluent. However, many wastewater treatment sites, particularly in Marathon, still use shallow wells — some are only 90 to 120 feet deep.
“It’s been said that storing wastewater in those wells is basically akin to putting a sewage pipe out into the open water,” Olsen said. “Many people don’t know that the city of Marathon has 12 shallow sewage wells that process about 2 million gallons of sewage per day. That is one of our latest focus areas that we’re going to start educating people about and we’ll be working with other organizations to see what we can do about it.”
And though you may not live in Marathon, and you may not even live in the Florida Keys, if you enjoy the occasional fishing trip or snorkeling excursion in the local waters, you may want to consider getting invested.
“Key West, Islamorada and Cudjoe all use deep wells, so even though people in Key West might think they shouldn’t care because the shallow wells are in Marathon, in this case what happens in Marathon doesn’t stay in Marathon,” Olsen said. “We have tides and water currents that move all this water back and forth. You’re still going to get the effects of shallow wells even though you think you’re far enough away from them.”
From building permits to cruise ships to sewage, Last Stand’s fingerprints can be found in just about every aspect of local life in the Keys.
“We’ve had our hands in so many different things, some of which never comes back to talk about Last Stand,” Olsen said. “A small example of that goes back to the November before COVID happened.”
In November 2019, Last Stand and Reef Relief co-hosted a lecture featuring Dr. Will Heyman, a senior marine scientist for the consulting firm LGL Ecological Research Associates, in which he highlighted the importance of the Western Dry Rocks as a critical Keys site for multispecies spawning.
“In addition to hosting the lecture to educate the public, we talked constantly with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC),” Olsen said. “I just saw in the past month that the FWCC just approved the closing of the Western Dry Rocks to fishing for at least four months each year, from April through July. Now, we were hoping it would be closed to fishing for a year, but it’s still a positive thing that happened as a result of our efforts to raise awareness.”
Though Last Stand isn’t the most audible voice contributing to the ecological conversation, what it lacks in volume it more than makes up in gravitas.
“What I think makes Last Stand unique is that the organization has always taken a very careful and thoughtful approach to any stance that it has taken,” Olsen said. “So I feel like we get listened to by the powers that be in the (county commission) and on the city councils because we’re not always running around with our hair on fire about every issue. We’re methodical — let’s understand this, let’s bring in scientists and share the information with everyone so they can draw their own conclusions.
“In that sense I think Last Stand has some real credibility and I think it’s important because there aren’t that many people listening to what’s happening every day. Our government makes changes on literally a monthly basis down here and there aren’t that many people who are going to these monthly meetings to keep tabs on those changes. It’s something we do and monitor continuously, and it might be a small thing that’s happening, like the delisting of Key deer from the Endangered List, but we’ll collaborate with anyone if they feel like a few more mouths speaking the same truth might help.”
Though the pandemic has lessened Last Stand’s ability to interface with the public, that hasn’t diminished the board of directors’ enthusiasm for outreach — or its desire to get more people involved in its mission.
“Unfortunately, COVID put a damper on most of our interactive activities, but I do believe we need to do more outreach to the community so other people learn about the good work,” Olsen said. “Over the next year, I hope and envision that we’ll be able to do more outreach to let the public know more about us and do more educational seminars to disseminate all of the information we’re always gathering. We know there are people out here who care about the environment so we want to present some information that’s helpful and might encourage people to get more interested in it.”
Last Stand invites the public to attend its monthly board meetings, which are held on the third Monday of every month. If you would like to attend an upcoming meeting, please contact email@example.com for more information. You also can join Last Stand’s mailing list by visiting its website at www.keyslaststand.org. In addition, you can learn more about Last Stand in person at the Earth Day Farmer’s Market at the Truman Waterfront on Thursday, April 22, from 3 p.m. until sunset. ¦