Biscayne, The Closest National Park To Miami, Remains A Mystery

Can you identify this park? Photo of kayaker at Elliott Key, Biscayne National Park, by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks

Miami’s number one boating destination has an identity crisis. While it has won over Washington, D.C., politicians, residents look right past it.

Even thousands of volunteers who care enough to clean up the city’s main body of water, Biscayne Bay, don’t know that they are touching holy waters of the federal kind. Congress anointed the southern part of Biscayne Bay with its protection in 1968, and in 1980 it was redesignated a national park, making it one of only 59 places in the United States to achieve such hallowed status.

It is clearly visible from downtown Miami. But when you ask residents to name the park, they can’t. Can you?

Thousands of people inside the park right now don’t know it exists, according to rangers. It is the national park with no name. A new pilot study from Florida International University in Miami found fewer than one in five residents of South Florida were aware of Biscayne National Park. When asked to name it, recognition drops to one in 20.

“It’s not all that surprising. Many people in urban areas think it’s their backyard park, and they don’t recognize it has national significance,” said Brian Carlstrom, who took over as the park’s superintendent in March.

The FIU study confirms findings in a 2006 study by Clemson University. Speaking with 1,806 residents across South Florida, researchers found that only 94 could name Biscayne National Park. A much higher percentage could name Everglades National Park, a larger and older park located only a few miles west of Biscayne National Park’s headquarters.

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Professor Collado-Vides worries that people who don't know about marine protected areas won't care for them. Jim Harper photo.

That study also found that 77 percent approved of taxes for parks and preserves and 93 percent believe in the importance of national parks, even if they don’t visit them.

No Entrance Gate

Most of the half million people visiting Biscayne National Park annually arrive by boat, and they don’t see any signs welcoming them. Because water covers 95 percent of its area, Biscayne National Park it suffers from an oceanic identity crisis.

“This place is absolutely amazing and unique in the entire world,” said Ligia Collado-Vides, a professor of biology at Florida International University who conducted the pilot study. “But unfortunately, people have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality about the marine environment. It is not where they live.”

Superintendent Carlstrom points out that the park’s boundary is almost completely open access. Boaters and land visitors alike pay no fee.

“We don’t have one central entry point. The main entrance on land is a little bit remote from the populace of Miami,” he said.

The park’s headquarters is close to Homestead-Miami Speedway and in view of the Turkey Point nuclear plant. Biscayne National Park’s northern border is within swimming distance of Key Biscayne, and its southern border nearly reaches Key Largo. On mainland Miami-Dade County it contains slivers of mangrove-filled bayside land and extends out to sea to 60 feet in depth.

Popular park sites for boaters include Stiltsville, the Fowey Rocks lighthouse, and Boca Chita Key. Yet ask any of the 500,000 or so annual boaters within the park to name it, and most will give you a puzzled look.

Professor Collado-Vides wants this misperception to change. On a picture-perfect Sunday in April, she went snorkeling in the park with the 40-plus college students taking her course in marine protected areas. They saw propeller scars in shallow seagrass areas, nets and other pollution on reefs, and healthy staghorn and elkhorn coral, the only two corals listed by the Endangered Species Act.

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Students from Florida International University set out to snorkel and discover the unknown national park near their campus. Jim Harper photo.

“When they see it, students really want to protect it. They recognize its value. The problem is that most people don’t even know this park exists,” said Professor Collado-Vides. “Here is Miami we are living near some of the world’s best examples of marine protected areas. The area’s natural riches are unbelievable and so, so close.”

The largest protected oceanic area near Miami is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, that encompasses nearly all waters around the Florida Keys. It contains the world’s first marine park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and its northern border touches the southern border of Biscayne National Park.

An Attractive Destination

The park’s sharks and crocodiles are not its most dangerous visitors. Locals gather for heavy partying each October on Columbus Day weekend, known in Spanish as “La Regata.” Six deaths resulted during the past decade from hundreds of boats huddling near the park’s islands. Last year brought only pain; one woman was airlifted by helicopter after suffering injuries while pole dancing.

The park escalates outreach and enforcement around the Columbus Day event, while on average days very few rangers patrol the park’s nearly 172,000 acres. For its newest outreach campaign, the park hosted three naturalization ceremonies in 2012 for more than 220 new citizens.

“Welcoming new citizens in a place that they now own is a powerful thing, far more memorable than doing the same in an auditorium or courtroom. Building lasting connections with new citizens through naturalization ceremonies is invaluable for a National Park situated on the doorstep of a city where the majority of residents are foreign born,” stated the park’s 2012 Annual Superintendent’s Narrative. Students are another target audience.

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This fishermen is casting towards a nuclear power plant just outside of the park's border. Jim Harper photo.

In 2010, the National Geographic Society welcomed 1300 local students among 2,500 participants in the first marine BioBlitz, a 24-hour event to count as many species as possible within the park. Professional and citizen observers counted more than 800 species, including 24 ant species new to the park, and a species of waterbear new to science. It was named Archechiniscus biscaynei in honor of its place of discovery.

National Geographic calls the park one of the nation’s top ten urban escapes. But it's not always an easy escape.

Fewer students will get to escape into the park this year. Two planned expedition camps were canceled after sequestration cuts in March reduced all national park budgets by 5 percent, equal to $211,000 for Biscayne National Park, which has a staff of about 40 and an annual operating budget of $4.2 million. The park also cut fuel consumption, island maintenance, and boat repairs, and it will leave seven lapsed staff positions unfilled.

While non-boaters can visit the park’s headquarters near Homestead, amenities are limited and even hidden.

One of Professor Collado-Vides’ students said he has been kayaking at the park’s headquarters for two years, but until his professor ordered him upstairs for an assignment in the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, he had no idea that it housed a nature center. Other activities at the headquarters include fishing, kayak rentals, snorkeling and diving tours, and primitive camping on Elliott Key.

On a recent weekend, many families enjoyed barbequing near the headquarters. On a bench in the shade of mangroves, Magaly Borges of Homestead was crocheting. She thinks the park offers the perfect backdrop for a “quince” photo shoot for her niece.

Homestead residents Mark Booth and Beverly Booth set up chairs near the bay under a tree and enjoyed watching family gatherings.

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Biscayne National Park follows state rules that allows fishing almost everywhere. Jim Harper photo.

They visit when they don’t feel like a long drive to the beach.

“How fortunate we are to be 15 minutes away,” said Mark Booth. “You should take advantage of it. Once you get north into Miami, it’s a lot of hustle and bustle.”

Is the bustling population of Miami too busy to notice the national treasure in its backyard? The new superintendent expressed concern about all national parks and not just about the largest marine park in the National Park Service.

“The better informed the pubic is the better they take care of it. Biscayne National Park belongs to the people, and they need to be aware so they can help the park managers take care of it,” said Superintendent Carlstrom.

He is aware of a Madison-Avenue promotional campaign being developed to promote all national parks, but Biscayne National Park has no significant new promotional plans. As a federal agency, they cannot buy advertisements in popular magazines, he said.

Perhaps they could hire planes to tow aerial banners that read: “This park sees you.”

Comments

I think I found out about the park just like many others... by being there and not realizing it was a National Park! It was definitely the most beautiful piece of Florida I have visited and I was lucky enough to do some diving there. It's a shame to see the parks are losing funding, especially when so many good people are involved. I think the best way to preserve these areas is by spreading awareness. Hopefully they can find some more success with that, I think if they do it may open to door to the funds they need to maintain the park to it's fullest.