New funding will help restore critical ecosystems in the Everglades and Great Lakes.
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
In the Great Lakes, looks can be deceiving. Sit on any of the seven national park shorelines and look out at the clear, vast expanse of freshwater, and you might assume that all is well. The same goes for Everglades National Park—to the untrained eye, a kayak trip through the maze of Florida wetlands might create the impression that nothing has changed for centuries.
But a closer look reveals seriously altered ecosystems: In the Everglades, dams, locks, and levies divert water to places where water doesn’t naturally go, leaving thirsty plants and animals downstream. And ships collecting ballast water on the other side of the globe (to improve their stability) eventually dump it into the Great Lakes, introducing invasive species.
“Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great example of a place that looks absolutely spectacular—but there are major ecological issues in Lake Michigan, and Sleeping Bear Dunes is right in the middle of it,” says Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. Those who visited Sleeping Bear in 2006 might have witnessed the park at its worst, when 3,000 dead loons and cormorants washed up on its shoreline as a result of deadly bacteria in algal blooms caused by two invasive species—zebra mussels and round gobies, a small fish.
These are just a few examples in a long list of problems plaguing the parks in these regions, from pollution to erosion. Thankfully, this fall, Congress set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for massive restoration projects in the Everglades and Great Lakes, using funds from the 2010 federal budget and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (see funding details below).
These victories go well beyond the borders of our national parks: The Everglades is the sole water source for 7 million people who call South Florida home, and the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people.
“The Great Lakes are the water source, the industrial heartland, and a significant recreational, ecological, and historical resource for the country,” Krumenaker says. “But for the most part, they’ve been ignored. We long ago figured out that we need to stop polluting the lakes—it’s not like this is a new idea. We’ve just never been able to catch up with what needed to be done.”
But that’s about to change: Congress recently set aside $475 million for Great Lakes restoration. On top of base-level funding, that adds up to nearly a $1-billion investment in North America’s largest freshwater source.
“The key here is to keep the funding consistent for the next five to ten years,” says Chad Lord, director of NPCA’s Great Lakes campaign. “After all the damage done, it will take time to rebuild wetlands and clean up toxic sediment before the ecosystem responds like we want it to. We don’t expect to see any dramatic changes within the first year. But over time, given the right investments, we’ll see healthier lakes that have fewer invasive species, less pollution, and more economic opportunity as a result of less toxic harbors.”
Park-specific projects include shoreline management at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, clean-up of toxic fuel spills at Isle Royale National Park, and restoration of native plants in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
“It’s unlikely that park visitors will notice any drastic changes,” Krumenaker says. “This restoration isn’t really about providing tangible visitor amenities or benefits that they will see in the short run. We’re trying to restore the ecosystem’s resilience—and by doing so, we’re making it stronger and better able to adapt to climate change.”
For ten years, Florida conservation groups have been waiting for Congress to fulfill a promise made as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which splits the costs between the federal government and the state of Florida. Until Washington pitched in, it was nearly impossible for restoration projects to break ground.
“This is a huge turning point,” says Sara Fain, Everglades restoration program manager for NPCA. “But we have a long way to go. When they passed the restoration plan, members of Congress knew that this was a 30- to 40-year effort—and we can’t delay it any longer. Science shows that every day we wait, the Everglades gets worse.”
This year’s funding—which adds up to more than $270 million and brings total federal support to $505 million since last February—is key to implementing a variety of projects in South Florida, including one that broke ground this fall: construction of a mile-long bridge to replace part of the Tamiami Trail, a highway that essentially dams the “River of Grass.” A one-mile bridge might not sound like much, but the Park Service is considering constructing as many as six additional miles in the future. “That’s pretty significant,” Fain says, “not only because we would have up to seven total miles of unimpeded water flow, but because a bridge of that size would allow people to look out and see the River of Grass; from the road, you can’t get an idea of how expansive the Everglades is. This could be a real draw for the park.”
Other projects include rebuilding the Picayune Strand, a large section of wetlands that once fed into the Ten Thousand Islands portion of the park. Another will redirect water into Taylor Slough, the southern waterway that distributes water into Florida Bay. A third project, slated for approval this year, will improve water quality and flow into Biscayne National Park. A third project, slated for approval this year, will improve water quality and flow into Biscayne National Park.
“It’s amazing what nature can do when it has the resources it needs,” Fain says. “Almost as soon as these projects are complete, we should start to see the ecosystem respond.”
It’s a massive effort on a massive scale, and the world is watching. “This is the largest ecosystem-restoration program ever undertaken,” Fain says. “We’re setting an example here—not just for other regions like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, but internationally, too. Americans are the innovators—we take on difficult things and say ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ We need to keep pushing forward.”