Table of contents
- Notable Impact
- Unsuccessful Attempts at Restoration
- What Has Gotten in the Way?
- The Booming Tourism Dilemma
- An Alternative Option for Restoration Efforts
In his special report in 1938 for National Park Services before the Everglades was officially recognized as a national park, Daniel Beard, a notable wildlife technician, wrote the following in his introduction: “Practically without exception, areas that have been turned over to the Service as national parks have been of superlative value with existing features so outstanding that if the Service were able to merely retain the status quo, the job was a success. This will not be true of the Everglades National Park. Primitive conditions have been changed by the hand of man, abundant wildlife resources exploited, woodland and prairie burned and reburned, water levels altered, and all the attendant, less obvious biological conditions disturbed” (Beard, 1938).
By that time, a considerable amount of damage had been done to the ecosystem for agricultural and urban uses, and those who were mindful of the environment were noticing the changes taking place in such a fragile region. Those in the region have been aware for a long time of the tremendous impact they’ve had on this ecosystem, yet not much seems to change. How is it that we are still contributing to the degradation of the endangered environment in South Florida, particularly the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, and what can be done to make genuine, lasting progress?
The effort to ‘improve’ Florida for human purposes has ultimately been in effect since 1855, when the state of Florida created the Internal Improvement Fund that aimed to make the most valuable use of Florida’s land (Walker and Solecki, 2004). The Everglades was seen as a worthless wetland area that proved difficult to work with, and efforts were put in place to make it more agriculture-friendly. This, of course, was a difficult and costly project, especially given the inhabitability of the wetlands in their natural state. It took a while to gain speed, but by the early 1900s, things really started to change in the South Florida region. From 1855 up until 1909, there were only about 13 miles of canals that had been dug through the Everglades for drainage projects; in the 15 years following, however, the state produced several hundred miles’ worth of canals throughout the Everglades (Elvove, 1943). This marks the beginning in the Everglades’ environmental degradation - by clearing the land for agricultural use (successfully), this ultimately led to runoff of nutrients into the natural water supply, which altered the native plants along the water and the marine life that relies on those vegetation species (Belanger et al. 1989). While this is by no means an uncommon practice, it’s worth mentioning the notability of Florida in this case, which is brought up in an Urban Ecosystems article from 1999: “Beginning in 1900, South Florida underwent one of the fastest sustained population growth spurts of any part of the U.S. in history, increasing an average of over 100% per decade for the next six decades. In the process, roughly half the land was transformed to agricultural and urban uses” (Solecki et al., 1999). Those are pretty impressive numbers. Six decades of being the fastest growing region in the entire history of the United States is astounding in and of itself, but the fact remains that a large portion of this booming region was once the Everglades, which has a fragile and diverse ecosystem of wildlife and vegetation inhabiting it.
In an article focusing on the impact of climate change on this region, Romano Foti points out that the altering of the natural habitats in the Everglades has left an already fragile ecosystem at a tipping point, where due to the landscape’s inability to rely on its own natural systems, there is a high risk of extinction for species that live in the region lacking the resources needed for survival (Foti, 2013). It makes sense: if a region is dependent almost entirely on the water of the region, and you divert the natural paths of those waters and add pollutants that harm the environment, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for that ecosystem to bounce back. This research is consistently supported in the field: in an article called ‘Predicting Ecological Responses of the Florida Everglades to Possible Future Climate Scenarios’, the writers echo Foti’s argument and conclude that climate change will be detrimental to the water supply for populations in the area; meanwhile, the freshwater ecosystems that exist will experience catastrophic shifts due to climate change, with larger ranges in water level that impact the vegetation and wildlife (Aumen et al., 2015). There are actually over 60 endangered species in the Everglades, ranging from birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, to coral reefs and trees in the region, such as the Miami blue butterfly, Lower Keys marsh rabbit, and Key tree cactus (Stys et al., 2017). A lot of the flora and fauna that inhabit the Everglades are native only to that region, meaning the destruction of the Everglades would probably lead to the extinction of many species.
Unsuccessful Attempts at Restoration
Evidence continues to build up pointing to the detrimental impact of the urbanization of the Everglades, leading to various efforts to raise awareness and inspire a call-to-action, if not for the environment itself, then perhaps for the livelihood of residents. It has proven clear that the Everglades is linked directly to the safety of the drinking water supply in South Florida, which has made government officials incapable of denying the impact of an endangered Everglades. However, even with local government wanting to put effort forward to improve the situation at hand, there does not seem to be an easy way for the local government to figure out how to work with the federal agencies involved. Restoration efforts in the region began with Congress providing about $200 million towards cleaning up the pollution and agricultural runoff that had been damaging the ecosystem, but local officials were often kept in the dark on what steps to take forward from there. Chief of the Natural Resources Division of Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management, Susan Markley, once said “it’s hard for me to say what the main role for local government is, because there really isn’t one, and that is one of the things we’re concerned about” (Shapard, 1996). A few years later, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, frequently abbreviated as CERP, was put in place to help restore the Everglades back to a state prior to human activity impacting it severely, and was initially expected to take about 30 years to complete and would cost about 8 billion dollars to undergo. However, the project has been less successful than hoped, with projections of accomplishing the mission of the project now suggesting a timeline of 50 years, with billions more in spending needed (Stern 2014). It’s clear that the plan itself is worth the efforts and does have productive impact when actually followed through on, yet CERP is constantly stalled and pushed back. A local attorney who works for the Everglades Law Center wrote an opinion piece that was published in the Miami Herald on the topic which says, “Solving our current problems requires that we do all we can to expedite implementation of those portions of the plan that can be expedited, as well as push for funding and support for critical CERP projects that remain tied up in the design stages” (Sampson, 2016).
What Has Gotten in the Way?
It goes without saying that large, restoration projects such as CERP can cost a lot of money, especially once we consider that the way Florida officials have altered the natural state of the Everglades is among “the most permanent and often irreversible effect that humans can have on the natural landscape” (Solecki et al., 1999). But what if there was a plan that took some of the gains from the booming tourism economy to go towards the budget of restoring the endangered Everglades? Florida continues to break its own records for number of tourists visiting each year, which is great for the local economy, bringing in about 70 billion dollars a year (Ostrowski, 2019). How this money is allocated, though, doesn’t benefit the local economy so much as it benefits those who come to visit briefly, often being put towards sports facilities and tourist activities. Meanwhile, reports show that “Florida is 43rd in per-pupil education spending. 26% of its roads are of poor or mediocre quality. 17% of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” (Billman 2019). These are some startling numbers for a state that is doing very well from an economic standpoint. South Florida is an undeniable tourist attraction with its luring qualities, such as warm beaches, 80-degree winters, and wildlife sightseeing, such as dolphins, and manatees. It’s no wonder that tourism is one of the biggest contributors to Florida’s economy. There were 127 million visiting the state in 2018. With so much economic benefit coming into the state, why is the endangered Everglades not seeing the restoration progress that it should be? Further research into the culture of Florida adds some perspective: about $4 billion was spent on yacht repairs last year, while golf was at the top of the charts for favored outdoor activities; in fact, Naples, FL, which is a city that built itself on Big Cypress Swamp which shares an ecosystem with the Everglades, calls itself the ‘Golf Capital of the World’ (Lavner, 2012). Golf courses have an extensive environmental impact, such as heavy use of chemicals, large use of water resources, a complete change of landscape, and pushing wildlife out, and yet, the state of Florida is proud to have almost the most golf courses per capita in the world (Salgot, 2006).
The Booming Tourism Dilemma
Tourism is often linked with poor environmental behavior, and that is particularly true in Florida. However, in an article in sustainable tourism development, the writers point out the various ways that the environment can be governed in tourist areas, which includes a collaboration between local communities and larger national entities to utilize both ‘policy and planning’ and ‘action oriented’ networks (Erkuş-Öztürk and Eraydın, 2010). It is clear in this study that tourism agencies that make an effort to provide sustainable services and collaborate with the local community have less of an impact on the environment than entities that do not put in the effort. It comes down, literally, to having knowledge of the environmental situation at hand and the resources to do something about it. The findings of the study showed how collaborative efforts have a higher success rate than individual efforts - this is an issue that the society and community at large need to come together on. Efforts like plastic bag bans, or responsible waste management, paired with educating the residents about the rapid degradation of their own local environment could potentially boost the restoration plans that have yet to prove effective in their goals.
An Alternative Option for Restoration Efforts
I would like to consider pushing forth environmental literacy in the South Florida region to contribute to the restoration of the struggling ecosystem. Environmentally literally is basically the general understanding of how our actions impact the Earth and what we can do to minimize that impact. In an article analyzing the relationship between what students were studying and how environmentally literate they were, one researcher found that when students studied a field that had an overlap with environmental studies, they often took more initiative to help the environment than students that had no exposure to environmental studies. This proved that “although individuals are responsible for the environment, institutional, political and public policies are required to create a climate that promotes and enables environmental-social responsibility at the individual level” (Goldman et al., 2015). This is something we see in action in Portland, OR on a regular basis. The progressive city is known for its environmental consciousness, and has become something that tourists are attracted to. The local policies, such as bi-weekly trash with weekly recycling (which encourages residents to recycle more and produce less waste), the plastic bag ban, and the more-recent plastic straw ban are a clear indication that the local government is concerned with their environmental impact. The policies put in place allow for each individual in Portland to take a more active role in doing their part. Meanwhile, recycling bins in South Florida are often about the size of a dairy crate, and most residents have several large trash bins that get picked up weekly. As a Broward County news article points out, even when residents do put in the effort to recycle, waste management of some cities in South Florida will simply take the recyclables to the landfill, as though they are trash (Barszewski and Geggis, 2018). We can certainly blame ignorance, but that does not have to be the case. There are plenty of ways to help educate a community to be more environmentally aware. Environmental educator Alex Russ discusses the different approaches to environmental literacy in his article, ‘Environmental Education Generates Urban Sustainability’, namely in the form of participation and partnership (Russ, 2017). Some fun examples include community garden events, field trips that encourage students to interact intimately with nature, adding more parks, and prioritizing environmental education in schools.
In Daniel Beard’s analysis of the Everglades for the National Park Services in 1938 mentioned in the introduction, he had an optimistic perspective on the fate of the diverse ecosystem: “It is not so much what the area is now, but what it is going to be after years of protection and careful administration. In fifty years, the Everglades National Park is capable of becoming an outstanding place” (Beard 1938). Unfortunately, 50 years after this was written, the Everglades was worse than it ever was before. And in the decades since the evidence mounted up that proved the urbanization and tourism of the South Florida region, there is still little success in the restoration of the Everglades. Ultimately, the region’s local government does little to educate the residents and tourists on the environmental impact of their regular activities, such as yachting and golfing, most likely due to the revenue that these activities bring to the state. However, I believe that if we work to education the local and visiting communities on the state of the environment and promote the progressive options that we know exist, there could be viable change that would inevitably contribute to the success of CERP and an overall environmentally conscious region.