Rooted in the "River of Grass" that once was the dominant landmark in south Florida, Everglades National Park is in a state of flux due to environmental pressures as it marks its 60th anniversary today.
When Everglades National Park was designated in 1947, its creation was hailed as a watershed moment in the conservation movement. Here's how the National Park Service recalls that moment:
For the first time in American history, a large tract of wilderness was permanently protected not for its scenic value, but for the benefit of the unique diversity of life it sustained.
The mosaic of habitats found within the Greater Everglades Ecosystem supports an assemblage of plant and animal species not found elsewhere on the planet. While nine distinct habitats have been identified, the landscape remains dynamic. Ecosystems remain in a constant state of flux, subject to the elements of south Florida.
It is a dynamic landscape. Within the park you can find a mix of ecosystems, from pinelands, mangrove forests and coastal lowlands to freshwater sloughs, just to name a handful. These varying habitats, as would be expected, support myriad forms of plant, animal, and marine life. There are tiny grass frogs; nearly 30 species of snakes; more than 40 species of mammals, including the endangered Florida Panther, and; more than 50 reptilian species, including the American crocodile, which also is endangered.
Much of the Everglades' color can be attributed to the nearly 400 species of birds that spend some time in the park. Stay long enough in the Everglades and you'll be able to spot loons, petrels, boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, herons (great blue, green, tricolored, little blue and night), egrets large and small, spoonbills and, of course, flamingos.
While images of bug-infested swamps often are conjured when the Everglades are mentioned, human populations have long managed to survive in this wet, challenging environment. Though pioneer settlement began to sprout in south Florida in the 1800s, the Everglades wasn't seriously impacted until the 1900s when numerous efforts were launched to pull the drain plug on the "River of Grass" and so create more land for development.
Development has been so rampant in south Florida down through the past century that the national park's boundaries protect only the southern fifth of the historic Everglades ecosystem, and external pressures are threatening even it.
These days the park faces a host of problems, from non-native snakes and manatees threatened by power boaters to suburban growth that is sapping the region's water sources just as drought could jeopardize water flows through the park.
With the passage of time and the growth of human population centers in south Florida, the park serves a new role-- serving as a touchstone against which to gauge the impacts of man on the natural world, says the Park Service. Scientific study is the key to better understanding, and managing, the resources entrusted to our care and protection.
But the park can only serve that role if it's healthy, and it's not. There's been much effort infused to "heal" the park, but that multi-billion-dollar restoration effort has had fits and starts that spur the question of how much good has been accomplished so far? The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that Congress authorized back in 2000 has seen questionable success in restoring water flows to the Everglades ecosystem. Things are struggling so mightily that the Miami Herald focused on problems with CERP this week in an editorial noting the park's anniversary.
Blame some delay on Congress, which couldn't muster the votes to authorize any key CERP projects until this fall with passage of a water projects bill. The federal government invested only $1.4 billion between 1999 and 2006, significantly ''short'' of its obligation, says a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The state has done better, investing $2 billion so far. But it rightly earned Congress' wrath when the Legislature weakened allowable levels of phosphorus -- the main pollutant -- in Everglades water.
Against this troubling backdrop, inexplicably the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization earlier this year removed Everglades from its "World Heritage Site In Danger" list.
What the future holds for the park is difficult at best to predict. Will the CERP work? Or will the Everglades continue to be strangled by development and demands on the precious water that nourishes it?