BIG PINE KEY, Fla. -- In Chris Bergh's neighborhood, the difference between no man's land and lush forest is a five-minute walk.
At the end of one street, 5 feet above sea level, endangered Key deer and rabbits roam past driveways before darting behind thick pine trees lining both sides of the road. Behind the green walls, they slurp from drinking pools fed by an ample supply of fresh water underneath the ground.
As the road gradually slopes downward toward 1 foot above sea level, the pine trees get sparser and wildlife disappears. The shrubby landscape thrives on salt water that seeped through the ground or came from storms, killing off or driving away much of the freshwater ecosystem.
Bergh stopped at the end of the road, where the landscape turns into a mangrove-filled marsh. The only reminder of the pine tree forest that once grew there is a white stump.
"As the sea rises and the salt water keeps coming in, the rest of the area eventually is going to look like this marsh," said Bergh, a director at the Nature Conservancy. "It's just a matter of time."
The future inundation of Big Pine Key is one of many issues that Bergh said he hopes are addressed as part of Monroe County's first-ever climate action plan, set to be released this fall.
The county is the southernmost in the United States, with acreage that is 73 percent water over its 3,737 square miles. It covers portions of the Florida Everglades and the Big Cypress National Preserve, but most of its population of 74,000 resides in the Keys, which are connected by a single highway. Climate change models predict that much of the area could be underwater eventually because of sea-level rise, a process fueled by rising temperatures.
Bergh is the vice chairman of a 11-person advisory committee of city officials, county representatives, environmentalists and other appointed members tasked with providing recommendations on climate change to Monroe's Board of County Commissioners, the Keys' governing body. The commissioners can in turn implement the document in the entire county -- if they approve it -- via their control over agency staff and spending.
Putting the plan together involves hours of meetings, as the committee considers everything from controlling garbage emissions to encouraging planting of native flowers. Florida's "sunshine laws" force them to try to maximize their time, as they are allowed to communicate on the details only in publicly advertised forums.
The draft plan is not meant to be a regulatory framework far in the weeds or a legal mandate. Instead, it makes broad suggestions, such as "provide support to implement water conservation measures."
Will a climate action plan survive?
Even so, officials here say the climate action plan could make a big difference in whether the Florida Keys sit completely vulnerable to the impacts of rising temperatures. Among other things, the county controls zoning regulations, and any changes on how high things are built, and where they are built, likely will have roots in the final document.
"The plan is absolutely critical for keeping climate change on the county agenda," said Michael Roberts, an official in the county Growth Management Division.
At a meeting of the climate change advisory committee in June, officials explained how the action plan meetings -- which have occurred for the past year -- are already driving policy.
Alison Higgins, sustainability coordinator for Key West, said the process prompted her to add climate change considerations to the city's 10-year review of its comprehensive plan, which governs land regulations. The framework will be voted on in October. The seemingly small language changes could determine whether everything from shopping malls to roads consider sea-level rise when undergoing construction.