Park History: Everglades National Park

The endangered Florida Panther relies on Everglades National Park for part of its habitat. NPS Photo by Rodney Cammauf.

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?

Comments

How sad that on this day, exactly 60 years after Pres. Harry Truman signed off on the legislation establishing Everglades National Park, the park is in such sorry shape and has such gloomy prospects. Recent commentary on this state of affairs has centered on the CERP's many shortcomings, and especially on the federal government's failure to hold up its end of the bargain. Reading this stuff is enough to make even the most optimistic park advocates sick at heart. And if all of this CERP news weren't bad enough, consider this: CERP or no CERP, a sea level rise of just two or three feet would cause salt water to flood the Everglades and destroy the ecosystem. "Walling off the sea" to save the park, even if it were possible, would be ecologically absurd. There is no higher ground for some of the park's rare and endangered plant and animal species to “retreat to," either. Farms, ranches, residential neighborhoods, and other developments have already laid claim to that higher land and will not budge. So there you have it. If you believe that global warming is real, and that a sea level rise of at least several feet is inevitable, you cannot logically believe that the CERP can save the Everglades. A cynic (though certainly not yours truly) might suggest that the feds have already decided that the risk of substantial sea level rise is now so serious that funding the CERP is the budgetary equivalent of pounding sand down a rathole.

Bob makes some interesting points. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it's 90% likely that humans are at least partially responsible for climate change and that there's likely nothing we can do to stop it. Sea levels might rise over the next century (although the sea level rise depicted in An Inconvenient Truth probably won't happen for centuries).

Given this, Bob's observation that some might consider CERP to be like "pounding sand down a rathole" seems valid. I do question the use of the phrase "destroy the ecosystem", though. A more accurate and less loaded term might be alter rather than destroy (just as forest fires don't destroy, they change).

Maybe someone with more knowledge about Florida's natural history (like Beamis) can fill me in, but hasn't Florida and the Everglades been submerged under salt water before? Weren't parts that are now ocean once swamp (maybe during the last ice age)? And if in the past parts that are now exposed were submerged, how did they recover and how long did it take?

Frank rightly points out that a forest ecosystem is not destroyed when wildfire burns it to the ground. The forest ecosystem is just temporarily restored to an early stage of ecological succession. After the fire you get weedy-fast growth (grasses, shrubs), and then the seedlings grow into trees, the canopy closes, and you've eventually got your mature forest back. That's the way secondary ecological succession works in a forest ecosystem. BUT it is only able to put the climax forest community back because the soil was not removed by the fire and and the temperature, precipitation, and other controlling variables have remained essentially the same. If a glacier were to arrive on the scene, obliterate the forest, and scrape away the soil right down to bedrock, you would have to wait until the glacier melts away and start all over again with a soil formation process that turns rock into topsoil at the rate of maybe five hundred to a thousand or more years per inch. Several thousand years or more might elapse before you've got your climax forest back. That's the way primary ecological succession works. I'd have no qualms whatsoever in claiming that the glacier destroyed the forest, since it obliterated it so thoroughly that putting it back takes thousands of years. Now let me get to the point. If sea level rise puts the existing Everglades ecosystem under several feet of salty water, it will destroy that ecosystem -- no ifs, ands, buts, or whats. None of the plants living on the landward side of the mangroves can survive salt water inundation. Not the sawgrass in the true Everglades "river of grass", not the hardwoods in the hammocks, and not even weedy crap like the invading melaleucas. They will be gone, and so will the algal mat and lots of other things that are down there at the base of the food chain and without which the higher-order life cannot survive. I'd hate to have somebody burn down my house and then say that he merely "altered" the footprint on which it stood.

Frank, I'm with you on this "alter" vs "destroy" point. And I'm sure you are right that this ecosystem has seen many dramatic fluctuations in water levels in the last 4,000 to 2 million years. Correct me, but aren't mangroves opportunists that have adapted to endure in just this scenario? I see similarities to the fire/forest succession analogy regarding how the everglades will adapt to climate change. Will there not be some poetic justice when suburban ruins become the foundations for mangrove islands? Just as Calusa shell middens became keys.

Regardless of which specific words we might use to describe the net result of Everglades inundation, I think we can all agree that sea level rise would bring about some pretty dramatic changes in the true Everglades area of the park. The suburban ruins scenario is wonderfully thought-provoking. This is the sort of "what if" thinking that I spent a lot of time on in a futuristics course that I taught back in the 1970s and 1980s. The exercises really helped us identify and think about some "possible futures" that we might otherwise never have considered. The scenarios that my students found most engaging were the dystopian futures. Using techniques such as linear extrapolation, matrix analysis, Delphi studies, and computer modeling we even came up with some "possible futures" for our national park system that were very unacceptable. After fleshing out this or that possible future that we considered unacceptable ("jeez, we sure wouldn't want THAT future to happen!") , we'd ask: What can be done to prevent that particular future from happening? We could usually list broad-scale political, economic, social, technological, and institutional changes that could divert us from that "wrong" path. But as they say, the devil is in the details.

we need the CERP like it or not!!!!!