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Beyond Sunsets: Pace Filmmakers Explore Sunshine State's Unseen Side

Pace film students explore the delicate balance between Florida's conservation and development in their new documentary, "Ridge to Ranch to River to Reef."
Pace film students explore the delicate balance between Florida's conservation and development in their new documentary, "Ridge to Ranch to River to Reef." Photo Credit: Contributed

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. -- Known for its white sandy beaches, crystal blue water and inviting tropical climate, Florida has seen an explosion in population in recent decades. As development booms, this influx of new residents has caused a cloud to build over the Sunshine State, one that Pace film students examine in their newest documentary, "Ridge to Ranch to River to Reef."

Each year, Pace's award-winning documentary program has tackled environmental issues, from the reefs of Curacao to the farms of Cuba. Led by Media and Communication Arts professor Dr. Maria Luskay, students decided to shed light on an issue closer to home and examine the fragile relationship between Florida's ecosystem and residents. "More than 1,000 new residents are arriving daily to Florida," said Luskay. "However, people rarely settle or visit anywhere but the coast. What we wanted to do was tell the story of the Florida that nobody knows." 

To gain firsthand experience, Luskay and the students traveled to the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida for a week of filming and research. Sited on over 5,000 acres of endangered Florida scrub, the park sits along the Eastern Continental Divide, which determines whether water flows east or west across the state. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students quickly discovered that in Florida, it's all about water.

"When we got there, we realized it all came down to water; it controls pretty much everything," said Shakira Evans, a graduate student at Pace. "The way water flows determines how the environment functions." 

Beginning in the state's central farmlands and marshes, what goes in the ground travels outwards. 

Roughly 60 years ago, farmers and residents began introducing fertilizer to Florida's soil. The results, scientists discovered, were toxic. Native plants and wildlife were decimated inland, while fish, coral and other marine life suffered crippling die-offs. "Everyone knew there were problems on the coast, but we're just now realizing that all the water is connected," said Kelly Whritenour, a junior in the Pace program. "The problem isn’t only on the coast."

In their documentary, the students also address the state's massive population increase, coastal development and resident education process. "So many people are moving to Florida from elsewhere, and aren't educated on the ecosystem," said Luskay. "Local organizations are taking the steps to ensure new residents are familiar with how Florida's environment works. They've recognized what happened, and know what they need to do moving forward." 

From what the students saw and heard, the steps may be working.

"Scientists are optimistic about the future," said graduate student, Camilla Klævold. "We've made mistakes, but as long as we're able to learn from them we can find a balance between conservation and development."

"Ridge to Ranch to River to Reef" will premiere at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville on May 10. Tickets can be purchased here.

The film was produced by the following Pace students: Shakira Evans, Nicholas Farris, Allison Fennik, Camilla Klævold, Zhenming Liu, Megan Meyer, Felicia Robcke, Rachel Weiss, and Kelly Whritenour.

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