By Cynthia Long
For Dawn Shirreffs, the best way to take in the beauty of Everglades National Park is by kayak, quietly paddling through warm marshes and pausing in alcoves to watch flocks of wading birds and to listen to the wind rustling through saw grass.
"Instead of racing through, you slow down; you appreciate the nuances of the way that life unfolds here," she says.
But it’s a way of life that’s under attack, adds Shirreffs, who is the Everglades Restoration Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Everglades funding has been cut by more than 75 percent over the last several years, and now Florida's newly elected governor, Rick Scott, eager to cut taxes and restrain government spending, slashed Everglades restoration funding to just $29 million, compared to prior Governor Jeb Bush’s annual $200 million per year.
According to polls, Floridians overwhelmingly oppose the cuts. For them, the Everglades is a source of pride, of breathtaking beauty, and of rare and endangered birds and animals. They want to protect species like the Florida panther -- the rarely seen tawny cats that roam the remote forests and swamps of the Everglades. They want to protect birds like the seaside sparrow and Everglades snail kite -- birds that might cease to exist within the next 20 years, never to be seen by visitors again, if water isn’t restored to the Everglades.
But it’s more than just about preserving nature. Floridians understand that defending the ecology of the Everglades means saving the economy of Florida. The Everglades supplies water to six million people – a third of the state -- and clean, cheap water is what draws residents, businesses, and legions of tourists to south Florida. If rapid, unchecked growth eats away at more and more of the Everglades, it will destroy the clean water the ecosystem provides.
"Water quality is one of the benefits of keeping checks on our growth," says Shirreffs. "But growth management is under attack in Tallahassee. The mantra is that regulation kills jobs, but there’s no justification for that. The Everglades ecosystem and restoration projects actually create jobs and fuel the economy.”
A 2010 study by Mather Economics revealed that investment in Everglades restoration provides a four-to-one economic benefit for ever dollar invested in restoration projects.
But the state lawmakers in favor of cutting funding to Everglades restoration aren’t looking at the research. Most are new to the legislature, elected in a time of economic crisis. They haven’t taken the time to learn about the current state or the history of one of the world’s most endangered watersheds.
The few lawmakers left that hope to preserve funding know that the story of the Everglades and how the endangered ecosystem became a World Heritage Site is a story of rampant overdevelopment and gross misuse of surrounding lands.
In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the Everglades, which had been about the size of the state of New Jersey, was drained to build subdivisions to accommodate the post World War II boom. Overdevelopment in the region cut the Everglades in half. In the decades following, flocks of retirees have migrated to the region, developing even more of the Everglades into gated golf communities.
Meanwhile, excessive runoff from sugar farming in the central part of the state released huge amounts of phosphorous into the ecosystem, destroying large swaths and altering these vital marshes.
To help alleviate the damage and to prevent more destruction, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was authorized by Congress in 2000 to "restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection."
The goal of CERP is to capture fresh water that now flows unused to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and redirect it, mainly to the Everglades as a way to revive the dying ecosystem. The remaining water will benefit cities and farmers by enhancing water supplies for the south Florida economy.
"This plan is 10 years old," says Shirreffs, "and most of its supporters in the Florida legislature are gone. We need to educate the new members about its importance."
She points to skyrocketing gas prices and its impact on families and businesses, and wonders what will happen when the same thing happens to water costs.
"It’s scary to think that when we’ve squandered a once naturally abundant supply of water, a lot of people will no longer be able to afford it because it will be so expensive to find alternative sources," Shirreffs says. "If we don’t preserve funding to Everglades restoration, we will continue to diminish our water supply, and the result will be absolutely devastating."
- Learn more about NPCA's work to fund national parks.
- Learn more about NPCA's Sun Coast Regional Office.
- Learn more about NPCA's Great Waters program.
- Learn more about Everglades National Park.