Saving the Everglades

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Everglades National Park, but the celebrations have been decidedly muted: The iconic swamplands are in a deep decline, and efforts to restore them to their former glory have become bogged down by mismanagement and political apathy.

The park’s problems run deep: Its vast sheets of slow-moving water have been heavily diked and ditched over the past half-century, and the lakes and rivers that feed into the park have been dredged, drained, and badly polluted. Along the way, the Everglades have recoiled and shrunk inwards: They now cover barely half the area they once did.

Inevitably, that’s impacted the local wildlife. Researchers say bird populations have declined by 90 percent in the past half-century, and dozens of the park’s plant and animal species are now nearing extinction. In their place have come hard-to-control invasive species ranging from escaped pythons (known to chow down on the park’s alligators) to exotic ferns that can choke and kill trees.

Global warming is taking a heavy toll, too. Hurricanes have already laid waste to a section of the River of Grass; besides flattening buildings, the storms have altered the nutrient content of several rivers, increasing the risk of harmful algal blooms. Meanwhile rising water levels are turning verdant freshwater marshes into sterile, salty dead zones. With the bulk of the park just a few feet above sea level, wardens fear much of what’s left could be destroyed in coming decades.

So far, though, the political response has been tepid at best. A comprehensive roadmap for restoring the park was developed by national and local planners in 2000, but so far it remains stuck in neutral. Congress has repeatedly delayed authorizing spending on the plan, falling well short of its pledged commitments; the state has done slightly better, pouring $2 billion into the restoration efforts, but has also let itself down by weakening key rules governing pollution in the park’s waters.

Meanwhile efforts to re-engineer the park’s water flow and undo the damage done by former dredging and damming operations - a vital precursor to any serious attempt to revive the Everglades’ flagging ecosystems - are lagging far behind schedule. With costs spiraling, both federal and local bodies now want to start cutting corners, swapping crucial projects for less ambitious (and less effective) alternatives.

That could be disastrous: Efforts to save the Everglades are already moving painfully slowly. If politicians and park managers start backpedaling, in another sixty years there may not be much left to celebrate.

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