A Park At Risk
With 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. It’s also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere and the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie, and it is the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America.
But, World Heritage Committee also recognizes the Everglades as a park at risk. In 2010, at the request of the United States, the committee added Everglades National Park to the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger due to the “serious and continuing degradation of its aquatic ecosystem,” which has caused a loss of marine habitat and a decline in marine species.
In other words, the Everglades’ water supply is being taxed. The waters that flow from Lake Okeechobee into the Florida Bay supply water to millions of domestic users as well as Florida businesses and farms. As the human population has grown, the strain on the Everglades has increased, and water supplies have been diverted and polluted. Add to this that the land has been drained in places, paved over in others and even plowed under.
But, that’s not the only threat. Non-native plant and animal species have been introduced. Without the natural controls that would limit these species in their native environments, they flourish. Park rangers are working to eradicate plants such as the melaleuca tree, Brazilian pepper, and Old World climbing ferns as well as animals such as lobate lac scale insects, walking catfish, and numerous reptiles.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has developed a list of eight invasive “Reptiles of Concern.” Of primary concern, though, is the Burmese python because of their large size and aggressive nature. Population of these non-native reptiles exploded in recent years and has “markedly altered” the park according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Over the last 11 years, the Everglades has noted a nearly complete disappearance of its raccoon, rabbit, and opossum populations. Bobcats, which serve both as a competitor for food and a food source, have also significantly declined.
Why should the fate of the Everglades concern Americans? The region, known as a river of flowing grass, is the third largest park in the lower 48 states after Death Valley and Yellowstone and is the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. It is also home to more than 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish, 40 species of mammals and 60 species of reptiles. Among those are 36 threatened or protected species including the Florida panther, the American crocodile and the West Indian manatee.
Between 350 and 400 species of birds take flight here, but unfortunately, park officials say that of those species, visitors see only 10 percent of the wading birds that would have been here before the area was declared a park in 1934. Ironically, the park was created to try to save the Everglades’ delicate ecosystems.
There is hope, however. The park was first placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew. Restoration efforts succeeded to the extent that the park was removed from the list in 2007. Although it was replaced in 2010, those same efforts may reverse some of the damage and help preserve it for future generations.
Of course, you can visit Everglades National Park. Hikes and bird watching are popular activities. If you want something more formal, the park offers ranger-led programs, a tram tour, and a boat tour of the Ten-Thousand Islands. Boating, canoeing, and camping are also permitted in the park. For something unique, try sailing, a pole boat ride or motorized camping.
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