Posted by: ecodestination | January 23, 2010

Ecotourism in the Everglades of South Florida

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.

Restoration Plans

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.

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Responses

  1. As a guide for the Everglades Day Safari and a board member of the Society for Ethical Ecotourism I understand your skepticism towards any eco-tourism claims but I have to take exception to your misunderstanding of the organization I work for.

    You decry our use of six vehicles and suggest hiking and biking is a more environmentally friendly way to explore the Everglades. How will those people get there? By vehicle? What if they carpooled?

    We do just that. We encourage people to drive less vehicles to the Everglades by driving them ourselves. It’s by no means the ultimate solution to carbon reduction but one vehicle bringing 14 people is better than 7 vehicles bringing 14.

    We also pride ourselves on educating our guests about the natural and cultural history of the Everglades. We want people walking away with an understanding of the ecosystem and the interactions humans have had with it for centuries. Everglades restoration is also a major part of our narration and while we want people to enjoy themselves, we also want people to understand their impact on the environment wherever they may be.

    You suggest tourism brings noise and high volumes of garbage. We visit the wilderness to escape the noise. Noise is not conducive to wildlife viewing. As for the garbage? We leave nothing behind and recycle everything we can.

    You say nothing is being done to regulate tourism and yet we belong to the Society for Ethical Ecotourism – http://www.seeswfla.org – a non-profit organization whose mission is to uphold a standard of ecotourism that protects the environment and educates the consumer.

    We use the Everglades National Park’s pontoon boat tour. Have you been on it? Tell me how that has a negative impact on the Everglades. The boats stay in designated boating channels, maintain posted speeds and keep an appropriate distance from wildlife.

    I can not say airboats are quiet. But I will challenge you to show me a study that suggests the airboat we use is harmful to the environment. Certain airboat companies use noise amplifiers to make their boats stand out. We avoid those and use an airboat company that goes out of their way to protect the wildlife the people are there to see.

    “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.”

    We are providing public education in an effort to save the Everglades. You suggest the importance of studying the impacts of human activity. Have you? Have you researched my company? Or any of the Everglades companies? (Yes there are the good and the bad). You label us as hypocrites yet you cast judgment without truly understanding what we do.

    I encourage you to contact me. Let’s all be better educated and I think you’ll come away with a much different assessment of what some of the eco-tour providers are doing for the environment.

  2. Hi Pete!

    Thanks for writing. Cinthia wrote the post, and she will get back to you soon.

    Meanwhile, I’d like to say that I visited http://ecosafari.com/ and there is no information on environmentally responsible practices whatsoever. There is a brief – and very vague – mention of wanting to preserve the ecosystem and nothing else. It would be great to have a page on there specifying your company’s concerns, standards, and efforts.

    Pete, not only are you saying that airboats cause no pollution, but I read that your vehicles are air-conditioned. Come on, now. I know that South Florida weather is usually gross, but if you’re going to the Everglades, you can take the heat and humidity. And of course people will drive to the Everglades, but once there, walking and biking are the best options for getting around. I’ve been to the Everglades and got around by walking, it’s completely doable, and especially if you’ve got a bike. In fact, I took a walking tour.

    I would also like to point you to this post, where I wrote about the impact of human [eco]tourists on wildlife and which is applicable here: https://saveecodestinations.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/ecotourists-shut-up-to-save-wildlife/

    Cinthia is right when she says that nothing is being done insofar as there is a lack of international, inclusive, all-encompassing standards applicable to ecotourism companies and so on around the globe.

    But I see you are also referring to a specific society. That’s great! Congratulations on being a part of it – it’s really important that those deeply involved in the ecotourism industry, like you, also get involved in taking care of natural ecosystems. If only more people did that!

    Is there a way those concerned can read about your company and your society’s certification program, testing protocols, and so on? Are you randomly audited? And are your records publicly available for review?

    This would be a great way to learn how your company and the society are doing their part to preserve the Everglades.

  3. The Society for Ethical Ecotourism http://www.seeswfla.org has been certifying ecotours in southwest Florida since 2000. In 2009 the board approved a new certification process that requires tour companies to pass a rigorous test of 236 criteria to be certified as an eco-tour. There are 4 levels of certification and organizations can improve their operation to ultimately achieve the highest level of 4 See Stars. SEE will be updating their website and operators will be able to download the Certification Checklist so they may do a self-assessment in advance of a random audit. Records will be available to the public. The new website should be up by June after the annual meeting but I would be happy to supply you with a copy of the pilot program document.

    Please reread my comments. I did not say airboats are not noisy. And I would ask you to disclose where you took a walking tour of the Everglades. It’s an 18,000 square mile ecosystem and you would have to drive to get to nearly every part of this wilderness.

    We do have an hour of our tour where we walk among the cypress so we are certainly not in a vehicle the entire time. Summer in the Everglades without air conditioning? Are you telling me this is how you experienced it? I can manage but 99% of the visitors to the Everglades can not.

    I would love to know more about your visit to the Everglades.

    Instead of attacking with baseless, uneducated claims you would do yourself a favor by working with organizations to assure they are ecofriendly. I know we are not perfect and no one is but we do strive to do our best to protect the reason we are exploring the Everglades.

  4. Hi Pete,

    Thank you for continuing this conversation. I do not consider myself an expert by any means and we both appreciate the time you’re taking and your efforts to clarify these issues about the ecotour and SEE.

    Wow, that does sound very rigorous. And making the criteria available online for self-assessment is a wonderful idea. I would love a copy of the pilot program document, thank you.

    That’s right, you said airboats are not quiet, not that they aren’t noisy. I wanted to emphasize that they do make a lot of noise, not that they are just “not quiet.” I suppose I wasn’t clear.

    I took a walking tour that lasted something like 2 hours, so of course it covered a small portion of the Everglades – I did not mean to imply that I took a tour of the whole area! That would take forever. I went with a small class from Miami-Dade College in April 2003. We got there at 9am and I remember thinking the sun was burning already, so I would not even think about setting foot there in the summer.

    However, I think it’s ridiculous to go somewhere – hot as it may be – and expect air conditioning! People go to the Everglades to be out in nature, learn about it, and respect it, no? So they shouldn’t be going there to continue polluting. This is my point. Besides, visiting a reserve to be in touch with nature *and doing it from within a car with air conditioning* sounds absurd to me: it’s so first-world and removed from the environment! I realize working there every day must be terrible due to the heat, but…

    My claims are not “baseless and uneducated” – I reviewed the very scant information available on your website. It would help everyone interested in the subject if there were a lot more information available, including your certification by SEE. It’s illogical to expect people to be aware of details about your company when you don’t make the data available to the public, especially when vagueness and a lack of information are red flags for greenwashing. And, as you said, it’s understandable to be skeptical of eco claims.

    Thank you

  5. Cinthia hasn’t been able to post this since yesterday, so I’m going to try:

    Hi Pete,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I think it is great that your company is doing what it can to be environmentally responsible towards the Everglades. I find it even more admirable that you use your power to take initiative and educate the public about the status of these ecosystems.

    The Everglades Safari tour has been functioning for over 15 years. You must be aware that there are many old cultural practices that are looked at as traditions in this area and I see that the use of airboats is one of them. The issue of noise isn’t the only problem – another is the disruption of wildlife breeding areas. Wildlands CPR, (http://www.wildlandscpr.org/) one of the many restoration projects out there, writes an article ( http://www.wildlandscpr.org/biblio-notes/not-just-bunch-hot-air-ecological-impacts-airboats) about the consequences of airboat traffic. In this post, Refuge Manager Burkett S. Neely says: “Private airboats disturb endangered species, wintering waterfowl and nesting wading birds.” This is one of many ecological impacts of airboats.

    Is this not damage? Many forums ( http://www.ngpc.state.ne.us/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=5;t=000247) have discussed the noise ( http://board.classifieds1000.com/Florida/Retirement/Airboats_Danger_From_Noise_and_Speed) that airboats make and there seems to be little regulation on this noise pollution. Regulations on airboat curfews ( http://www.myfloridalegal.com/ago.nsf/Opinions/75532F458F1935EF85257641004EFD6F) are being put in place but the biggest change is the number of airboats: there seem to be a lot more now! The conversation gets heated when it comes to airboats because they are a part of the local culture and also the most convenient way to get around. Has no one found a less noisy option? And if airboats are so harmless, how come they are not allowed in all parts of the Everglades?

    I feel like new ideas and strategies need to be thought out in order for the Everglades to be restored. There seem to be a lot of opinions about ‘what is right’ for the Everglades. I am willing and interested to see what standards the Society for Ethical Ecotourism ( http://www.seeswfla.org/), which you hardly mention an affiliation to on your site, puts into place and how your company implements these regulations. I admit I have never been to the Florida Everglades so I cannot judge firsthand the level of harm of all the tourist companies in that area.

    However, I can see that bigger companies like yours create a lot of tourism that really does impact the Everglades. I believe that the larger amount of movement your company creates, the more responsibility it holds, especially if it claims to provide an authentic ecotour.

    In the end, we know that your organization thrives on the wellness of the Everglades, so it serves us all for you to take care of them.

    Thank you,

    Cinthia P.

  6. you guys make gator nuggets and call yourselves eco-friendly???…

    • I am so happy someone finally pointed that out!

  7. Do eco-tour companies not provide meals to their guests? My understanding is that alligators are prevalent and the meat is farmed. In theory it could be locally farmed, no? As long as it is sustainable how does serving alligator preclude a tour from being designated as eco-friendly? Would you rather they serve beef shipped in from Oklahoma?

    • Hi Chelsea,

      Thank you for raising a valid point. I’m sure a lot of people may agree with you.

      I do not. Here is my response:

      By definition, it is not sustainable (sustainable means to maintain the original status quo, that is, humans should neither hunt alligators nor raise them in farms).

      Additionally, it is hypocritical. If you care about an ecosystem, you also intrinsically care about its species’ well-being. You will not begin by preaching that a species and its habitat deserve to be respected and preserved, and then turn around and offer pieces of meat of the same animal species you were praising 10 minutes earlier as an exotic snack.

      You either respect a living being or deem it fit for exploitation. These are mutually exclusive stances.

      Does that make sense?

      If you feel good about sticking alligators in cages and breeding them to sell their meat and skin (or buying these products and thus endorsing the animals’ exploitation) you cannot simultaneously be truly concerned with preserving these animals’ threatened ecosystem. You are contributing to its destruction.

      It comes down to how serious you are about your commitment to be ecologically responsible. Alas, if you’re using the eco label solely to attract fashionably eco tourists rather than eco- and ethically minded individuals, you can get away with a lot of unsustainability and hypocrisy.

      And in case anyone was wondering, nope: I do not eat meat.

      What is your opinion?

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  10. […] By Cinthia Pacheco (this article first published on Save Eco Destinations) […]

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  18. […] Ecotourism in the Everglades of South Florida « Save Eco …Jan 23, 2010 … A swamp in the Everglades. By Cinthia Pacheco. The Everglades of South Florida: an ecotourism hotspot to explore the unique mingling of … […]

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