Sunday, May 06, 2001

'Something magical' about the Everglades

Eco-system visit all about nature

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Everglades are one of a kind. Fragile. In danger of disappearing.

        True, true and true, conservationists say. But don't let that stop you from visiting. They want you to come.

        “Because then people will get on our side to help us fight to save them,” says Juanita Greene, president of Friends of the Everglades. “There's something magical about the Everglades. ... You feel very much a part of nature when you're there.”

        The threat to the Everglades comes not from visitors but rather from past drainage of large areas for farmland and other development, conservationists say, along with continuing pollution from runoff. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to restore the region will cost $8 billion and take close to three decades.

        Friends of the Everglades is one of many groups working to preserve southern Florida's 17,000-square-mile system of wetlands — the most diverse on the planet. The Everglades ecosystem stretches beyond its namesake national park north through Big Cypress National Preserve to the Kissimmee River area, north of Lake Okeechobee.

   These Web sites have information about the problems faced by the Everglades and the search for solutions:
   • Friends of the Everglades.
   • The Everglades Restoration Movement.
   • The National Audubon Society.
   These sites offer information about attractions, activities and lodging in the Everglades:
   • The National Park Service.
   • The Tropical Everglades Visitor Association.
   • Everglades site affiliated with The Miami Herald.
        And it's not all swampy. The Ten Thousand Islands area, for instance, feels more like a lake. Running alongside the Gulf of Mexico, the water is a mix of fresh and salt water, stained brown by mangrove trees on the islands.

        “The Everglades are all kinds of things,” Ms. Greene says. They are “never what people expect.”

        The National Audubon Society, which operates a field office in Miami dedicated to Everglades conservation, echoes Ms. Greene's invitation to visit.

        “This is one of America's national treasures,” says Mark Kraus, deputy director of Audubon's Florida office.

        The group's interest in the Everglades is in its unparalleled — but threatened — role as a wildlife habitat. The area is home to 57 endangered or threatened species, according to the Audubon Society, including the American crocodile, the Florida panther and the wood stork.

        The number of wading birds in the region has decreased by 90 percent in the past century, experts estimate.

        Still, there are many critters left for bird-watchers and others. Conservationists suggest several ways to enjoy the region without further endangering it:

        • Walking. Mr. Kraus particularly likes the Anhinga trail, inside Everglades National Park's main entrance near Homestead.

        “If you have only a short time in the Everglades, that's the trail to visit,” he says of the easy, 1.5-mile walk. “It has a concentration of wildlife, including alligators and a number of wading bird species.”

        Bikes also can be rented for some trails.

        • Canoeing. “The most intimate view of the Everglades comes from the humble perspective of a simple low boat,” the Frommer's guide to Florida advises.

        Ms. Greene recommends the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile route from Everglades City through the Ten Thousand Islands to Flamingo, on the southern tip of the state's mainland.

        Motorized boats are permitted in the Ten Thousand Islands and Florida Bay — which have deeper water than the interior of the Everglades. A boat tour may be less work for visitors, but it provides a quick general impression rather than the close-up experience offered by slower modes of transport.

        • Camping. Pitching a tent or a parking an RV in one of several Flamingo area campgrounds is ecologically friendly, conservationists say, because the impact is confined to specific areas.

        • Heading skyward. An observation tower on the short, winding Pa-Hay-Okee Trail, inside the national park, provides a wonderful overview, Ms. Greene says.

        Pretty much the only modes of exploration frowned upon by most conservationists are swamp buggies and airboats. The buggies are worse because they touch bottom, Mr. Kraus says, and stir up mud.

        Airboats — flat-bottomed, propeller-driven boats invented by pilots after World War II — beat down the vegetation and change water channels along regular routes, he says. They are banned in Everglades National Park but permitted in Big Cypress and other places.

        Recent weather conditions, however, could put some airboats out of service this summer, says Barry Kenney, executive director of the Tropical Everglades Visitor Association.

        A drought that has gripped South Florida for close to six months is lowering water levels in the Everglades, and forecasters don't see the situation improving in the next couple of months.

        The drought has another effect: Alligators are showing their ugly heads.

        “The gators are looking wherever they can for water,” Mr. Kenney says. “They're going to be more visible.”

        One last critter-related warning: Summer is high season for mosquitos.

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