Picture yourself on the water in a powerboat in Everglades National Park, a world away from tourist joints and crowded beaches. You’re cruising on plane and your passengers are spotting sharks, dolphins and shorebirds galore. Then you run aground.
If you try to power off, your boat drags through seagrass beds and creates blowholes as the prop struggles to push you back up on plane. National Park Service scientists believe extensive prop damage – along with years of water diversion and other human influences in South Florida – threatens the health of the shallow everglades and its wildlife.
Boating is a major issue that should be addressed in managing the park for the next 20 to 30 years, according to a new 585-page “Draft General Management Plan” for Everglades National Park. Park officials have a range of ongoing concerns in the waters of the Gulf Coast, Ten thousand Islands and Florida Bay: boat-boat collisions, boat-wildlife collisions (including with manatees), groundings and other impacts on the sea bottom, which is a federally designated wilderness.
According to the draft plan, the park service wants to “balance the desires of some users for unconstrained access to all marine waters with the need to accommodate user groups who value different kinds of experiences – all while protecting the resources for which the park was established (including submerged marine wilderness).”
Released Feb. 28 and available online for public viewing and comment until May 12, the draft presents four management options. The first is to take no action at all. Next comes the NPS preferred alternative, followed by two others labeled “Alternative Two” and “Alternative Four.”
All three action plans call for mandatory boater education. “A boater education permit program would be established to promote shared stewardship of marine resources, including shallow sea bottom areas, seagrasses and wildlife,” states the plan introduction. “Operators of motorboats and non-motorized boats (including paddled craft) would complete a mandatory education program to obtain a permit to operate vessels in the park.”
The document calls for a system of six different color-coded zones: Developed, Front Country, Boat Access, Pole/Troll, Backcountry (non-motorized), and Special Protection. Developed and Front Country zones would continue to allow easily-accessed activities most visitors pursue, such as walking the Anhinga Trail to see gators and birds, riding a tram into Shark Valley or taking a backwater boat tour from Flamingo.
Action plan differences for three of the zones – Boat Access, Pole/Troll and Backcountry – could affect some boaters. The Boat Access Zones would limit motorboat use to specific areas while the Backcountry Zones would provide opportunities for only non-motorized wilderness experiences, such as tranquilly paddling a canoe.
If it prevails, the NPS Preferred Plan would create Pole/Troll Zones to protect the sea bottom for a third of Florida Bay’s shallows (131,392 acres) within the park. Boaters could get around in those parts of the bay propelled only by paddles, poles or trolling motors – but not by combustible engines (which would have to be trimmed up). Established boat access channels would remain in use.
Up in the East Everglades Addition, accessed primarily from highly 41 (the Tamiami Trail), a framework would be established for managing commercial and private air boating, and for back-country uses, for the first time since the passage of the 1989 Expansion Act.
Where exactly will you be able to use your powerboat? It’s too soon to tell since each action plan defines the zones differently. You can study zone locations on color-coded maps of the park now to see what might change if and when one of the action plans ultimately rules, a decision slated by 2014.
The complex document presents many positives for those who love the Everglades. All alternatives provide for the long-overdue improvements (currently still unfunded) at Flamingo on Florida Bay, 38 miles from the main visitor center. Flamingo lost its motel building and cabins to damage caused by 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.
Since then, the only way to spend the night in the park is to camp, so some visitors bring tents or arrive in recreational vehicles. In recent years, the NPS added electric hookup sites at Flamingo’s campground that can be reserved online. The NPS Preferred Plan would add solar showers and electric hookups at the Long Pine Key Campground near the main park entrance to eliminate generator noise.
The three action alternatives call for a new launch point for carry-in boats near Long Sound on the 18-mile length of U.S. Highway 1, the road that leads from Florida City down to Key Largo.
The NPS Preferred Plan calls for the concession operation at Everglades City (on the northwest side of the park) to offer more opportunities to visit Ten Thousand Islands, Gulf Coast and Wilderness Waterway through boat tours and canoe/kayak rentals. The NPS would establish a cultural heritage interpretive water trail in the Ten Thousand Islands area.
The NPS would also construct additional campsites and elevated 10 X 12 wooden camping platforms (chickees) in Florida Bay, the East Everglades Addition, and along the Gulf Coast. (Chickees are already available for visitors with back country permits who spend the night, for example, in 99-mile Wilderness Waterway using boats with drafts of less than two feet.)
Costs and staffing needs are attached to each of the four alternatives. The No Action (current) scenario calls for a $17 million annual operating budget, 214 staff and $10.8 million for the one-time Flamingo improvements. However, the actual 2011 staffing was only 181; funding was insufficient to fill all 214 authorized positions or to cover Flamingo’s overdue restoration. And the Park Service has had more budget cuts during Washington’s current “sequester.”
The NPS Preferred Alternative calls for 249 staff and a $22 million annual operating budget, with a one-time facility cost of $40.8 million.
After the public comment phase ends this month, the NPS will review and analyze public input and make adjustments to the plan. The final General Management Plan and Record of Decision will be issue in 2014.
Also explore: Visiting Everglades National Park
Christine Goodier is a coastal North Carolina-based freelance writer and editor covering outdoor leisure pursuits. She is the former editor of All at Sea Caribbean and is a frequent contributor to MotorHome Magazine.