The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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The record of the park is replete with bad decisions—and no decisions. The first mistake was by an inept U.S. Congress, which permitted more than half a million acres already authorized for the national park to be excluded when boundaries were fixed in 1958. Now it turns out that the park’s ecology has been disturbed by the development of these excluded areas. The National Park Service itself has been less than astute on a number of occasions. Biological research and management practices that should have been initiated a decade ago have only recently been implemented. Even worse, the Park Service has been slow to cope with immediate threats. In the case of the Everglades jetport, one park official actually gave his blessing to the Dade-Collier site because it was preferable to another site closer to the park. And when the full implications of the Dade-Collier site became known, it was not the Park Service that stirred up the conservationists. It was Robert Padrick, then chairman of the Flood Control District.

 

To be sure, a certain political realism pervades the Park Service’s executive echelon. Money for new national parks is scarce enough, but money to expand or protect old ones is even dearer. Thus at least three different drafts of the longawaited Everglades National Park “master plan” have been pigeonholed somewhere in the Interior Department; all reportedly urged—perhaps too emphatically—the acquisition of more land to protect the park’s ecosystem.

Most observers whose job security is not wedded to Park Service policies agree that the preservation of the park is dependent on large-scale land acquisition, both of private inholdings within the park and of lands outside to buffer the park’s vulnerable perimeter. The inholdings situation is critical. Inside the boundaries of the park some 3,500 individuals and corporations hold 74,000 acres. One area has been subdivided by a British syndicate that is selling the lots —sight unseen—to buyers throughout Northern Europe. In the so-called Lostman Five area, half a dozen new private fishing camps were completed last year. And in the 24,000-acre “Hole in the Donut”—where inholdings are protected from condemnation so long as they remain in agricultural use—pesticides from truck farms are pouring down the Taylor Slough into the park’s principal habitat for bald eagles. To acquire these inholdings at today’s land prices would cost the United States approximately $20,000,000.

Far larger appropriations would be necessary for the national government to acquire—as it should—those lands outside the park’s boundaries which are believed to be the most essential for assuring continued flow of water into the park from the Big Cypress. One tract runs west from the vicinity of the jetport site and includes the Fahkahatchee Strand, a wild Collier County slough noted for its hanging orchids, strangler figs, mossdraped cypress, and royal palms. The Fahkahatchee, in fact, is being considered for designation as a national monument. Now some conservationists are promoting its hunting and fishing values as reasons to acquire it as a national recreation area. The second critical buffer lies in Monroe County south of the Tamiami Trail, in the Loop Road area between the park’s panhandle and its northwest extension. Much of the land around here is high and dry enough to be vulnerable to development, and the rest of it feeds water directly into Everglades National Park.

At the very least, these lands in Monroe and Collier counties should be placed within a water conservation district somewhat similar to those managed on the east side of the Florida peninsula by the F.C.D. Creation of such a district was recommended by the Environmental Study Group of the National Academies as a measure to prevent the intrusion of salt water into the shallow aquifer underlying the Big Cypress Swamp, to assure an uninterrupted flow of surface waters into the western portion of the park, and to maintain an adequate water supply for the growing needs of southwest coastal communities.

Along with such solutions for the Big Cypress there must also come the guarantee that the national park will receive a minimum 315,000-acre-foot flow of water through the floodgates and canals of the F.C.D. Even those who are not enthralled by the challenge of maintaining the park’s biotic integrity must surely be interested in maintaining the productivity of the multi-million-dollar commercial fisheries in Florida Bay and in the” Gulf. The famed Tortugas shrimp, for example, grows to maturity in the mangrove estuaries of the park. Here the low salinity of brackish waters—controlled by the input of fresh water from the park’s sloughs—protects the juvenile shrimp from prédation. Durbin Tabb, a marine biologist of the University of Miami, warned more than five years ago: “If the park were to lose all of its supplemental water from the traditional watersheds … there is grave danger that the richest commercial fishery of the state would be seriously damaged.”