Maintaining the Everglades' delicate balance

The tram slowly made its way along the Shark Valley trail, the river of grass stretching away on all sides. Two dozen passengers gazed at herons and ibises feeding close by, and watched an occasional alligator soaking up the sun in a roadside ditch.

The young seasonal ranger braked the open bus to a halt, climbed down from the driver's seat and waded ankle deep into the water covering much of Everglades National Park.

To the untrained eye, all seemed normal and healthy at the famous park. But all is not well, explained ranger Debbie Savage. The demands of agriculture and the growth of nearby Miami/Dade County and other parts of south Florida are depriving the Everglades of the natural flow of water needed to sustain the park's unique environment.

This problem, and others, make the Everglades a prime example of a national park beset by external threats -- threats that directly affect its natural attractions, but which originate outside its borders.

The park's normal water supply (except for rainfall over the park) flows from sources in the north through a series of structures that are opened and shut depending on floods or domestic, commercial, and agricultural demands for the water. The timing of the flow often conflicts with the normal needs of the park. The unnatural flooding in dry seasons disrupts nesting cycles and destroys young wading birds, alligators, and snakes. And untimely drought harms plants and wildlife. Meanwhile, the underground water has become so depleted that there is danger of saltwater intrusion into the water table.

Several large, graceful white birds with black-edged wings and black heads soared by, landing a short distance away. Ranger Savage told us that we were fortunate to see these wood storks. Once numerous, they are now relatively scarce. Wading birds have declined 90 percent in the park since it was established almost 50 years ago. Visitors a few years from now might not see any wood storks unless an adequate, natural flow of water through the park can be assured. The present, sparse flow also probably reduces the fishery and marine resources in Florida Bay at the extreme tip of the Everglades. This affects the birds that depend on the fish, and hurts recreational fishing as well.

Everglades superintendent Jack Morehead and his deputy, Rick Smith, point out that the crucial matter of water is only one of the problems threatening the very survival of the park. For example, large sections are being overrun by plants and trees that aren't natural to the area, thus upsetting the ecological system and making it unfit for some native species of wildlife.

''The natural variation in the water tables is what made the Everglades so great,'' Superintendent Morehead said. ''But if this (the interruption of a natural flow of water) keeps up, the people coming to Everglades in the year 2000 might see a cover of Brazilian pepper instead of sawgrass, and few birds and no gators or any of the 11 species that are endangered or threatened and need the park habitat.''

On the border of the park, Florida Power & Light has proposed increasing sulfur emissions from its coal-burning Turkey Point power plant. This would further pollute the air in the park. Commercial fishing interests are pressing for unlimited fishing in Florida Bay, and agricultural interests seek to farm inside the park. The Department of Interior has scheduled oil leasing off the shore, threatening broad stretches of fragile parkland with oil spills and leaks. Several companies are already drilling for oil in Big Cypress National Preserve bordering the park on the north -- an area that is supposed to protect the Everglades water supply.

Superintendent Morehead says Everglades is one of the most threatened parks in the system. Judging from extensive travels through the parks and interviews with Park Service officials, it seems fair to say that Everglades is the most threatened park. At the same time, the park has something special going for it. Unlike other national parks, Everglades has been able to begin planning ways to save threatened natural resources before it is too late. It has a larger team of resource managers and research scientists than any other park, and they are already working toward solutions.

Former park superintendents Jack Stark and John Good started assembling the team in the mid '70s. Nathaniel Reed, assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks at the time, gave the project a major boost by providing the impetus for the establishment of the South Florida Research Center right in the park.

As its name implies, the research center works to understand the wider ecosystem of which Everglades National Park is only one part. Other features in the system include Big Cypress National Preserve, Key Biscayne National Park, and Fort Jefferson National Monument, as well as state and county lands. It's $1 .5 million annual budget supports seven full-time research scientists and cooperative work by 30 others. They study wildlife, marine and plant ecology, and hydrology. Their aims: (1) to gain information about the influence of water variations and other factors on Everglades resources; (2) to learn more about the normal relationships and dependencies among species in the ecosystem.

Based on a study of the historical flow of water in the entire system, chief hydrologist Peter Rosendahl and his associates were able to work out a proposed alternative schedule for bringing the required seasonal flow into the park. The innovative but expensive plan would bring water in at times that correspond to natural life cycles. Morehead hopes to implement the new plan, if he can win approval from the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers. But he faces an uphill battle, due to lack of funds.

Studies of wading birds, alligators, and endangered species by wildlife ecologists Jim Kushland and Bill Robertson are producing evidence of damage done to wildlife by water variations. They are also learning more precisely the changes in water flow needed to correct the problems. Varied tasks of park resource-management team

Plant ecologist Ingrid Olmstead is working with park resource management specialists Bob Doren and Bob Wilson to curb the spread of nonnative plant species such as Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, and melaleuca. Resource manager Joe Abrell monitors the dredge-and-fill activities of developers outside the park, which could endanger the park's water supply. Rick Dawson, another park resource manager, is compiling data on fishery conditions, data that could become a factor in persuading Interior Secretary James G. Watt to stand behind a Park Service regulation ending commercial fishing in Florida Bay by the end of 1985. That regulation is under attack by the commercial fishing industry. Jim Holland heads a staff assigned to protect the resources in parts of the park that are officially designated as wilderness. He keeps an eye on nearby oil drilling activities and proposed new developments in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Mr. Holland, Mr. Morehead, and the park resource managers have also been working with neighboring towns and farmers on the park's eastern border to prepare a cooperative land-use plan that would protect the park and at the same time provide for appropriate uses of adjacent land.

Although it's closer to a large metropolitan area than any other major national park, Everglades has not yet been hit by the urban problems of overcrowding and crime. Visitors from foreign lands are increasing in number, but people from Miami and other nearby Floridians don't make much use of the park. In fact, visits have dropped by one-half since 1968. Early emphasis of park service: luring the people

The commitment Morehead feels for protecting the park's basic resources from outside influences is shared by personnel throughout the National Park Service. For most of its first 50 years, however, the Park Service was forced by circumstances to put its priorities elsewhere. Following the founding of the service in 1917, its first director, Stephen T. Mather, and assistant director, Horace M. Albright, concentrated on building a cadre of rangers, developing ways to interpret the parks for visitors, and providing facilities for them. Luring people to the parks was essential in those days. Without great numbers of satisfied users, the parks would not have the constituency needed to stave off the exploiters.

History records that the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite was drowned to provide water for San Francisco; minerals were exploited at Grand Canyon, Organ Pipe, and Death Valley; extensive grazing continues in Grand Teton and some other Western parks. During World War I Mr. Mather and Mr. Albright had to use all their wiles to keep loggers, miners, and stockmen from devastating the parks in the name of national defense.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Americans took to the roads as car ownership and highway construction expanded. Park visits mushroomed from 11 million in 1945 to 80 million by 1960. But funding and staffing lagged far behind growth in use. Many of the park facilities, roads, and structures lapsed into disrepair. A 10-year program that eventually cost $1 billion, called Mission 66, rehabilitated structures, facilities, and roads by 1966. But it gave scant attention to ecosystems, wildlife, and other natural resources.

Over the years the Park Service has always assumed that rangers would be taking care of the resources as part of their general duties. And despite second-home development, urban encroachment, nearby grazing, logging, mining, and other activities, the national parks have been generally regarded by government officials and the public as islands of wilderness, usually far enough from ''mainland'' activities to remain unharmed.

Occasionally, warnings were issued by wildlife experts. A National Academy of Sciences committee reported in 1963 that information on the status of ecosystems within the national parks was so poor that ''unless drastic steps are immediately taken, there is a strong possibility that within this generation we will see the reduction of several if not all of our parks to a state totally different from that for which they were preserved and for which they were to be enjoyed.'' The warning went unheeded by the Park Service and by Congress.

The first strong public hints that the natural resources of the parks might be having major problems came in 1979. The National Parks and Conservation Association conducted a survey of park superintendents to assess the impact of such activities as residential or industrial development, roads, grazing, logging, energy extraction, and agriculture. Water resources were being adversely affected in 79 of the 203 park areas taking part in the survey. Air quality was a problem in 74 areas, and wildlife was being harmed in 64 areas, the superintendents reported.

Cleve Pinnix and Clay Peters, former Park Service rangers working for the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks, brought the reports to the attention of Reps. Phillip Burton (D) of California and Keith G. Sebelius (R) of Kansas. The two staff members suggested legislation to require an annual ''State of the Parks'' report from the National Park Service. The resulting bill failed in committee. But Congressmen Burton and Sebelius, seeking to start a process they could later write into law, wrote to then Park Service director William Whalen, requesting that park superintendents prepare single-page assessments of the factors inside and outside the parks threatening natural and cultural resources.

As rarely happens in a bureaucracy, the responsibility for carrying out this request found its way to exactly the right person -- Roland Wauer, head of the Park Service's natural resources division. He had been a ranger, park naturalist , and southwest regional chief scientist before being assigned to Washington. And he had been waging a losing battle to have the Park Service seriously address the internal and external dangers to park resources.

Mr. Wauer designed a comprehensive questionnaire outlining 75 specific categories of possible threats. He asked each superintendent to specify whether each threat was adequately documented, known but in need of research, or only suspected. The park officials were also to list specific sources of each threat and the particular natural or cultural resource that might be harmed.

As it turned out, when the report went to Congress in May 1980, only one-quarter of the threats could be listed as adequately documented. Despite this and other weaknesses, however, the report served as a warning signal that park resources might really be in trouble.

A total of 310 National Park Service areas reported more than 4,300 specific threats -- pollutants, exotic plant and animal species, and industrial development projects among them. More than half of the threats emanated from sources outside the parks. The superintendents reported scenic resources to be significantly threatened in more than 60 percent of the parks, air quality in 45 percent, and mammal, plant, and fresh water resources in more than 40 percent.

''From Mission 66 to the present, visitor comforts, facilities, and enjoyment have been placed in higher priority than the protection of and perpetuation of the resources and natural systems for which the parks were established,'' says Mr. Wauer. ''Without question, the significant resources are being degraded to an extent that if this trend continues, the parks will, in the not too distant future, be only shells of what they were originally.'' Recommendations from State of the Parks report

The report proposed a number of follow-up actions: preparation of a comprehensive inventory of important natural and cultural resources in each park; completion of park plans for managing the resources; development of accurate baseline data on park resources; monitoring programs to detect and measure changes in the resources and in the larger ecosystem; and expansion of the Park Service's research and resource management capabilities to deal with the problems.

It also noted a deficiency with dangerous implications for the future: Out of the current Park Service operating budget of more than $500 million, only $10 million goes for natural science research, which is carried on by fewer than 100 scientists. Fewer than 100 of the service's 9,000 permanent employees are full-time in the field on resource management.

Park Service director Dickenson told me: ''The major emphasis, both within and without the service, has to be given now to what is occurring in the natural resources arena. It's not the visitor use, except for isolated instances, where we have the biggest problems.''

Despite such commitments, the needed change in priorities has been slow in coming. In February 1981, Mr. Dickenson brought the 10 regional directors to Washington for a special meeting to decide which of 266 significant resources problems should be selected as ''essential needs'' and funded for corrective action. Dickenson said that Interior Secretary Watt was planning to take $105 million in funds intended for park land acquisition and use it instead to start a massive program to restore parks. The Park Service had been assured, he said, that $10 million of the $105 million could be used for restoration of cultural resources (historical structures and sites) and $5 million could go to natural resource management, research, and monitoring.

After an all-day session, the regional directors selected 38 natural resource projects that would require $3.5 million the first year and an additional $4.6 million over the following two years. They included control of feral goats at Olympic, pigs and goats at Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes, and rabbits at Channel Islands, and dune revegetation at Cape Cod. Eight wildlife and fish research and monitoring projects were approved, including humpback whales at Glacier Bay and grizzly bears at Yellowstone. Fourteen water-quality projects, from Oregon's Crater Lake to Maine's Acadia National Park, were put on the list. Also proposed for funding were 63 cultural projects, from preservation of the tower of Independence Hall to restoration of the historic ship SS Wapama at Golden Gate.

Within a few weeks, as the Interior Department completed its 1982 budget proposals, Dickenson was notified that the parks would be getting $10 million for corrective work on cultural projects.

For natural resources projects, however, the budget would allot zero. Natural resources, it seemed, did not fit with Secretary Watt's plans for redressing what he had recently termed the ''shameful'' condition of the national parks. ''And besides,'' commented an Interior Department official to a Park Service staffer, ''We just can't afford to spend money on goats and rabbits.''

Next: Threats to cultural resources

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Maintaining the Everglades' delicate balance
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today