An eye-opening trip through the park
Everglades National Park, an icon of the National Park System, remains the extravagant abundance of the River of Grass. Forty-two Society of Environmental Journalists members, including half a dozen international members from Colombia, Sweden and Poland, toured the park Thursday with Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park System; Dan Kimball, park superintendent; chief scientist Bob Johnson and chief interpreter Alan Scott. The humans took a humble place next to the wildlife and lush vegetation.
Jarvis sees the national parks as part of the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors program, contributing to public education, increased diversity and public health.
“Some day, the doctor will tell you to take a hike and call him in the morning,” he said.
Climate change is an important element in telling the national parks’ stories. Sea level rise and increased likelihood of hurricanes are being built into park planning. Climate change is included in new interpretive signs as the old ones are replaced or new ones added.
A crocodile obliged us as we began our boat trip at Flamingo, up Tarpon Creek into Coot Bay and Whitewater Bay, by sunning itself on the concrete boat ramp. Boat Captain Geoff pointed out the differences between crocodiles and alligators – in salty water, this was a crocodile, a narrow nose ideal for eating fish. He estimated this one weighed 300 to 400 pounds and was 10 years old.
Birdlife surrounded the boat: an osprey with a fish in its talons, a red-shouldered hawk, coots, white ibis, tricolor herons, green-backed herons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, the first anhinga of the day. We slipped past red, white and black mangrove trees, watching their leaves, now turning golden, wave into the brown canal waters, stained with from the decaying leaves.
Dawn Shirreffs, Everglades program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told about the lengthy and complicated process that is restoring the Everglades. Each piece of the process builds on the next: water storage before water treatment before the water can be restored.
“The Everglades is being restored for its human benefits,” she said. A third of the people in South Florida depend on the Everglades for water.
Jonathan Ullman, Sierra Club organizer, made the case against installation of 70 150-foot Florida Power & Light transmission lines through the park. Shirreffs concurred with him. A decision will be made soon. An announcement of progress is expected Oct. 27.
Leaving the boat, we moved on to slog through knee-deep water in the sawgrass swamp. Interpreter Scott confidently led us through the water and around the stunted trees as we gained our footing in the slippery mud. Leaning on walking sticks, we poled ourselves through the water, stirring up mud in our wakes. He soon had us scooping up handfuls of the light, spongy periphyton algae, the rich beginning of the food chain. He inhaled a deep breath of its essence.
“See, it smells like air freshener you’d use in your house,” he said. Not quite, but not unpleasant, either.
Saw grass has little saw teeth on the edges of the long blades, but it’s not a true grass. It’s a sedge. But who would want to call it Saw Sedge?
The water got deeper in the cypress dome, thigh high. Trees grow taller there, attracting birds that roost there at night, fertilizing the water so the trees grow taller. Scott caught inch-long mosquito fish in a plastic container, and I brushed off some mosquitoes, the most dangerous wildlife we were to encounter, Scott assured us.
Drying off at Royal Palm, we met Skip Snow, park biologist and reigning python expert. Pythons are the poster snake of exotic invasive species. South Florida is now the world leader for established populations of exotic reptiles and amphibians. He started us out with a two-foot baby that curled appealingly around his arm and hand. Other visitors were attracted to the spectacle. They grew into a large group on the lawn when Snow unpacked the nine-foot, 17-pounder. It slid out of its white mesh bag and struck at him before settling into a coil. It inflated and deflated itself with heavy hissing, its delicate pattern rippling in the sun.
Snow made the point that a snake this size is an apex predator, like a lion. At this size, it has no predators. Estimates for the number of pythons infesting the park vary widely, from 5,000 to over 100,000. They probably originated from pets abandoned because they grew too large or were no longer wanted. The Florida Wildlife Commission holds an amnesty day once a year when anyone with an unwanted animal can turn it in with no questions asked. Snow says the goal is to reduce the number of animals turned loose to an uncertain fate.
We’d lingered over every stop, making us late, but we were unwilling to leave Royal Palm without spending half an hour on the Anhinga Trail. Anhingas are good swimmers that fish underwater. As we walked across the footbridge, a female anhinga stepped from the bank and dove silently into the water running under the bridge. She fanned out her turkey tail as she stretched out her snake-like neck, poking into the greens for fish. She soon emerged with a shiny fish speared on her beak. She maneuvered it off her beak and down her throat, head first.
We got home an hour late, but all of us were reluctant to end the day. We were tired but engaged in the issues of clean water, preserving national parks, reporting the invasion of exotic species and extending news and information about nature to the public. #