A swamp in the Everglades
By Cinthia Pacheco
The Everglades of South Florida: an ecotourism hotspot to explore the unique mingling of subtropical wetlands, or another tourist frenzy disturbing serene wildlife?
The Everglades already have a dense history of human impact, and one is left to wonder if we can improve the situation or just make it worse by visiting this special environment – even from an ecotourism angle.
Geographically, the Everglades are an anomaly: a combination of swamps, mangrove forests, pine rockland, and other systems. This diverse environment contains a colourful array of plants and endangered animals that stretches 100 miles from Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee, around Disney World and through Florida Bay.
The strain of urban development has culminated in the draining and contamination of 50% of these wetlands.
Map from library.thinkquest.org
A peek at the history of the Everglades: in the 1950s, the land was considered for residential development. The U.S. Government started building canals and water control structures to improve flood control and drainage. The result: the natural flow of water from the ocean to the Everglades was ruined, and the water that did reach the wetlands was contaminated with chemicals, while fresh water became unable to circulate in the area.
Today, there is a number of restoration plans underway to turn around the damage. The CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers form the largest ecosystem restoration plan in global history. They work together to, among many other projects, restore water flow and rehydrate drained wetlands. The Corps are building a special pump to encourage natural water flow, as well as remove many miles of road.
On January 7, 2010 the CERP held a ceremony to reinvigorate the Everglades restoration plan.
“Over the past-century, South Florida’s explosive growth has absorbed half of the original Everglades,” Col. Al Pantano, Corps’ Jacksonville District commander stated. “Today, together, we are returning some of those lands that were prepped for development to their former, natural conditions.”
Regulations on Tourism
Amidst the myriad projects and initiatives, very little is being done about the human impact on the Everglades – including regulations on tourism.
A typical Everglades alligator
Large swarms of tourism bring noise and garbage to this delicate environment. And according to many self-proclaimed ecotourism companies, the Everglades are still considered an ecotourism hotspot.
The Everglades Day Safari defines ecotourism as ”responsible travel” – and then proudly announces its “six vehicles in the fleet” and exploration of the area by “airboat” or “pontoon boat.” These companies do not help preserve the stillness of an environment that is under threat.
Other more responsible projects have less impact.
Everglade Trail, a smaller tourist trail project, promotes individual trekking through the landscape, encouraging activities like canoeing, hiking, and biking. They also offer a CD for you to take along to listen to information and stories about the wildlife and history. This strategy is healthier for the Everglades, even if it is considered “slower” tourism.
One recent regulation set on human activity in the Everglades National Park is a Pole and Troll boating rule. In designated areas, boats are required to use push poles, paddles, or electric trolling motors to protect sea grass and wildlife.
But there is still a lot of work to be done.
David Reiner, president of Friends of the Everglades, wrote in a recent 2009 newsletter,
“In spite of our accomplishments and best efforts, the Everglades continue to degrade. Developers continue to be given permission to develop sprawl west of the Urban Development Boundary. Protections for the ecosystem which is the lifeblood of South Florida are hard won and expensive.”
Do tourists – even ecotourists – only make the matter worse? Or can public education contribute to saving these wetlands?
Studying the impact of human activity will help us better understand which restrictions must be established and how to properly enforce them.
Working hard to heal the damage done by urban sprawl is important, but we must also be attentive to our present actions. Taking responsibility in the present is a direct way to work on reviving the Everglades in the future.
Cinthia Pacheco is a Canadian-Argentine living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a feminist who spends her leisure time writing and playing basketball. You can connect with her via email and on Twitter at @rincon200.