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In search of the early everglades.

Scientists struggling to repair damage to the River of Grass must contend with a lack of data and funds.

You crouch on a small dry hummock in the midst of the seemingly endless wetland grasses of the Everglades. It is 1930, and you are surrounded by an abundance of wildlife beyond the scale of anything you have ever seen. You stand, startling a vast colony of wading birds that takes to the air en masse, obliterating the sun. Mammals from mice to manatees abound, along with fish, alligators, and other species.

Fifty miles to the south, in a skiff on the waters of Florida Bay, you can look from horizon to horizon and see nothing but shallow waters dominated by dense seagrasses. The bay is home to fish, shrimp, sea turtles, and birds. Like all early visitors to these places, you are astounded by the numbers of plant's, animals, and insects. In 17 years, a portion of this massive ecosystem will become Everglades National Park.

Today, 46 years after formation of the park, both deliberate and inadvertent modifications have severely depleted this abundance. The massive nesting colonies of Everglades' wading birds are gone. Those missing birds have plenty of company. Only 50 Florida panthers exist today, and only two are believed to live within the park; seagrass, mangroves, and sponges periodically die in large sections of Florida Bay at the south end of the park; and economically important populations of fish and shrimp perish in their nursery grounds as rotting vegetation robs the bay's water of life-giving oxygen.

Everglades National Park in Florida is not the same park it was before farming, along with commercial and residential development, exploded in the southern end of the state. In fact, at last one scientist says the Everglades began sliding downhill before becoming a national park in 1947. And the damage continues. Each busload of European tourists and carload of vacationing Americans has a bit less of the Everglades to enjoy than the visitors who came before them. The traditional role of NPS dictates that the agency ensure the public's enjoyment of the parks while preserving the resources. In the face of limited funding and public demand for access, preservation and the research necessary to sustain it have become secondary pursuits.

The Everglades is far from the only national park facing serious problems; however, its issues are among the most urgent because the park's water supply--its lifeblood--has been diverted, dammed, poisoned, and otherwise damaged. In the vast majority of cases where parks are threatened, it is not the inability to take action that prevents implementing remedies to save them but the lack of clear knowledge of the mechanisms causing the damage.

"We have a mandate to protect the Everglades," says Mike Soukup, research director for the National Park Service's South Florida Research Center. "We need to voice the needs of the park [in the interest of] its long-term preservation. The issues are so pressing and the threats so immediate for the Everglades that unless research information is available at the appropriate time, our efforts here will fail."

A limnologist, Soukup specializes in freshwater ecosystems. He directs research to help understand the Everglades and works to share that information effectively. Among his goals are preserving the park and returning waters to conditions prevalent before humans intervened.

Changes made to the Everglades' natural systems in the late 1940s and after were made with little or no thought to environmental consequences, And now that the changes have been in place for some time, each alteration has its proponents, says Soukup, and many of these have political or economic influence. NPS and conservationists working to support the park must deal with the entrenched interests of developers and the conflicting interests of flood control, demands for a water supply, and agricultural interests who want water but oppose regulation of their runoff.

Some opposition to Everglades restoration comes from unlikely comers. Bass fishermen oppose filling canals to restore water flow pattern, because the canals provide easy access to fishing areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has opposed water-level changes that might increase risks to the endangered Everglades kite, which have become dependent on habitat in certain areas and may not adapt quickly enough to survive. The most effective answers to these dilemmas, more often than not, involve better data, ecosystem perspective, and careful approach.

Research in the National Park Service has a fundamental purpose, according to Dominic Dottavio, NPS southeast region chief scientist and deputy associate regional director for science and natural resources in Atlanta. "Research is a tool to help us understand what we have, how it is changing, and what we have to do to protect it in perpetuity," he says. "In order to manage the resources effectively, you have to have scientific research and resource management research. How do we get rid of exotic plant species, and what is the impact of activities in areas adjacent to our parks? We can answer these questions only through good-quality research."

The Park Service's attitude has not always been so positive. A National Research Council report published in August, Science and the National Parks, notes that a dozen major reviews over the past 30 years--including at least two issued by NPCA--strongly recommended, to little avail, that NPS improve its research program. The chairman of the committee that wrote the report, Paul G. Risser, ecologist and provost at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, uses Sequoia National Park in California to illustrate the need for greater study.

"We thought without research that maintaining the sequoias meant preventing fires among the trees," he says. "Because of research, we now know that if there are no fires, the trees cannot reproduce. Without periodic fires, a layer of soil litter builds up that seeds cannot penetrate [and as a result they cannot] compete and grow. Occasional burns open the understory and provide a good seedbed."

What the sequoias are to Sequoia National Park, water is to the Everglades. Yet, detailed research about the role of water in the health of the park is new. The South Florida Research Center was founded in 1978 in response to rapid degradation of the Everglades. By that time, a network of huge water diversion projects was robbing the park of a sizable percentage of its water as well as disrupting distribution and affecting quality.

"Vast changes to the water management ... brought us to the the Everglades doesn't really exist as a sustainable ecosystem," says Soukup. "It needs to be thoroughly restored to bring it back to the characteristics for which the national park was established."

Understanding water in the Everglades requires mastering complex relationships of quantity, quality, distribution, and timing across a vast region, nearly all of it disrupted. It is an extremely complex ecosystem. Water flows slowly but steadily along the "river of grass" leading southward from Lake Okechobee. The lake and nearly every water body and waterway south of it to the Everglades has been changed. Water is diverted for human use, much of it never to return to the system. The water that is returned is sometimes full of nutrients that affect the natural development of Everglades' plant communities. And any water releases are irregular and in locations convenient to people, not the Everglades.

Soukup's team aims to identify the historical characteristics of water that typified the Everglades. The team also will look at the relationship of these factors with the wading bird colonies and the biological activity that promoted the establishment of the park.

"The holes in our knowledge center on what the system was like in quantitative terms," says Soukup. "How much water was in what areas, for what time periods, and with what variability? How much water flowed into Florida Bay in an average year, and what were the extremes? Those baseline data for the original ecosystem don't exist."

In the absence of data, Everglades researchers turn to computer modeling to simulate early conditions in the park. Using the models, researchers test hypothetical water delivery systems to determine how best to ensure that water reaches the right portions of the park.

Extending the use of modeling allows the park's researchers to determine how variations of water delivery affect wildlife populations such as wood storks, alligators, and panthers. Other work predicts how changes in the water supply in the northern Everglades will affect quality when that water reaches Florida Bay and, in turn, the coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

But even as research and new modeling tools begin to provide a pathway for recovery in the Everglades, the effort is starving for lack of funds. When it was founded, the South Florida Research Center was provided with $1.6 million in funding. In the 14 succeeding years, the center has taken on additional park responsibilities, while funding has remained the same. For the past two years, the center had been scheduled for a significant increase, only to see it cut late in the budget process. "In real dollars, the amount of money available for Everglades research has decreased substantially since 1978," says the Park Service's Dottavio.

As a result, even the most dedicated researchers experience severe frustration. "Funding for research in the Park Service is absolutely abysmal," says one researcher. "We are facing monumental problems ecologically, and these funding problems make it worse. I feel like a runner coming up on the finish line, and I realize that 1 am about to fall. It appears that the federal government and the Park Service are not capable of identifying the true needs and getting the dollars there."

To do the job right, Soukup wants the center's budget increased from the current $1.6 million to $5 million. And to include the entire larger ecosystem in the effort, he says, an additional $3 million should be made available to Big Cypress and Biscayne national parks, which are adjacent to the Everglades. This includes both research and resource management efforts.

And Hurricane Andrew worsened the situation. Homestead, Florida, which suffered the worst damage from the storm, is headquarters for the Everglades and home to most of its employees. Simply placing a phone call to or from the center, difficult in the best of times because of inadequate phone systems, was nearly impossible for weeks following the storm. Of 250 people employed at the park, the homes of 175 were seriously damaged, according to NPS. The research center lost much of its roof, and water damaged many records and papers. NPS officials estimate that cleanup efforts will take several years and put the initial recovery needs for Big Cypress, Biscayne, and Everglades at $52 million. Most of this money will go toward repairing infrastructure and not for research.

Hurricane damage will undoubtedly draw attention from the Everglades' other problems; however, it is not likely to still the requests for more research funding. The intensity of the cries for money for the Everglades might seem enough to elicit quick responses from Washington, but the problems are more complex than that, notes John Dennis, chief of the science branch of the Park Service's Wildlife and Vegetation Division. "Because of the way the federal budget is set, each bureau has to weigh all its competing needs," he says. "NPS distributes funds internally based on priority, and it is fairly easy to place the human needs of park visitors at a higher level than those of research."

Throughout NPS, much of the research requested by professionals goes unfunded. In its 1988 report Natural Resources Assessment and Action Program, NPS identified 2,500 natural resource and research projects that would go unfunded from 1988 to 1992. Anne Frondorf, chief of planning and information in the Park Service's Wildlife and Vegetation Division, estimates that at least 750 of the unfunded projects were research. And while she reports that some progress in funding has been made, it is likely that similar numbers of proposed NPS research projects continue to go begging.

In the midst of criticism over the lack of research in NPS, teams such as Soukup's have nonetheless accomplished impressive things. Their research led to winning a settlement in the Everglades Water Quality lawsuit last year. And as a result of settlement negotiations, the center gained the assistance of the state in negotiations with South Florida's growers to reduce agricultural runoff flowing into the park. It is one of the triumphs of the Everglades program that even on a tight budget Soukup's team can use complex research tools to provide meaningful data on the requirements of the park's ecosystem.

In addition, the Park Service's Dottavio ticks off a long list of Everglades projects, including some of the nation's leading work in fire ecology and with exotic species; endangered species research with bald eagles, least terns, and panthers; long-term monitoring of many environmental parameters; research into the dynamics of the Everglades' water systems; and the development of ecosystem computer modeling.

Everglades research is making headway in spite of obstacles ranging from budget cuts to hurricanes. After what one official called a "long, agonizing lack of protection," researchers are optimistic that the unique ecosystem over which they stand guard can be restored to something approximating its original condition.

"Realistically, it will take something like a decade" to repair the water systems and regulate them to replicate the early Everglades, says Soukup. If we can muster the political and economic support to make it happen, our reward will be a gradual return of the wading birds, increases in populations of formerly endangered species, restoration of original vegetation communities, and an overall increase in the health of the Everglades.

Through rigorous research and restoration, it may yet be possible in our lifetime to stand amid the abundance of the Everglades and watch a vast colony of startled birds obliterate the sun.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on National Park Service's research programs; repair of environmental damage at Everglades National Park
Author:Sharp, Bill; Appleton, Elaine
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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