Too often when we think of national parks, we think of distant places enjoyed by tourists—yet millions of people in cities across the country are just a bus ride or a quick car trip away from these inspirational places. Part of what I do is help connect people—especially kids and young adults—to the nature and history that is right there in their own community.
Florida City in South Florida is an excellent example. This city is just six miles from Everglades National Park, yet many of its residents have never been to the world-class park that is right in their backyard.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Nature Valley® partnered with Miami-Dade County and Florida City last month to help engage the next generation of park lovers in meaningful, hands-on experiences in nature. Our goal was to restore a piece of land known as the Florida City Pineland Preserve to its natural beauty. This 25-acre parcel was once part of the Everglades but had since become an island surrounded by development, suffering from dumping and neglect, and not easily accessible to the public.
So, on October 13, I drove down the Florida Turnpike while the sun was rising, eager to get to work. As I drove, I feared that the fickle weather would foil our plans. After a promising week of sunny 80-degree days, Mother Nature seemed to play a nasty trick and ominous dark clouds filled the sky. With a loud crack of thunder, a vicious downpour of rain lashed my windshield—the kind of rain that drives many South Floridians running for cover. However, my spirits soon lifted. Within an hour, the clouds had passed, and the day turned warm and sunny. As an added bonus, the rain made the soil more suitable for planting. Mother Nature was on our side after all.
Despite the early storm, more than 50 volunteers arrived to help. Most of our volunteers were high school students from the urban core of Miami. The students were beaming with enthusiasm and eager to plant trees, remove invasive species, collect pine needles to spread as mulch, and clean up trash. Not one of them complained about the heat and hard work; in fact, they worked so well together that we finished all of our planting and mulching early. They even asked for more work!
This was not our first time working with some of these volunteers. Last March, NPCA hosted a volunteer day to build a pathway with educational signs through the Pineland Preserve—a successful project that makes it easier for Florida City residents to enjoy and learn about the Everglades. Now, as the group arrived at the park, they could see the small native plants we had planted in the spring were starting to sprout gorgeous flowers. Neighbors could already see that these 25 acres were no longer just an unkempt plot of land, but a refuge and a pathway to the Everglades.
The restoration will benefit more than just people. South Florida’s torrential rains have traditionally fed pristine wetlands and hardwood hammocks, but many of these natural areas have been lost to construction over the past 20 years, as urban sprawl creeps closer to the Everglades. But pocket parks maintain pieces of what the natural environment used to look like, and the Pineland Preserve contains some of the few remnants of pine rockland habitat that once covered much of Miami-Dade County. Restoring this property to its original state will provide endangered species with critical habitat despite the urbanization taking place all around them.
One of the kids asked whether such a small parcel was worth restoring, since it seems like a disconnected island without much purpose. I answered—and spending the better part of a day in the Pineland helped to show—that, in fact, it isn’t an island at all, but rather an oasis teeming with wildlife.
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One of the most rewarding parts of this project was getting to connect dozens of local students to the park and to help them to see the fruits of their labor. It was clear that these youth felt a sense of accomplishment and ownership after their hours of hard work. When we were done, students stood tall next to a sign that we posted, letting locals and tourists know that this property, once neglected and overgrown with weeds, has been restored as native habitat and is now a pathway park–open for all to come and experience a taste of the Everglades.