A glimpse of the “preferred’’ future for visitors to Everglades National Park:
• If you want to skipper a motorboat or paddle a kayak, you’d need to take a test first and get a permit. In a third of Florida Bay, you’d need to propel your boat with a push pole or electrical motor only. No sea grass-scarring props would be allowed on shallow flats and banks.
• Crowds could be capped at hot spots like Shark Valley. So call or check that (yet-to-be-developed) Everglades app to see if there’s room for you.
• The last few tourist stops along Tamiami Trail could still be running airboats through the marsh – but only on designated trails in a small slice of marsh.
Those are a few of the big proposals by managers trying to complete the first comprehensive overhaul of park rules and regulations in more than 30 years – a period of massive environmental changes, most not so good, for a 1.5 million-acre park that spans three counties from vast marshes to the fish-rich waters of Florida Bay.
After nearly a decade of revisions, the park late Wednesday released four alternative plans that could bring significant chances to what visitors can – and can’t – do in the largest federal wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains. A series of meetings to gather public response starts March 19 in Homestead. The park, after more potential tweaks, aims to approve a final general management plan in 2014.
The “preferred” alternative is intended to better protect natural resources while also preserving access and the unspoiled atmosphere that is supposed to be part of a national park experience. That’s sometimes been a difficult balance — particularly when it comes to boaters and anglers, some of the park’s most passionate but also most damaging visitors.
Park studies found watercraft numbers have more than doubled over the last few decades, a surge that left Florida Bay’s vast sea grass beds crisscrossed by damaging prop scars – with scientists documenting more than 12,000 trails totaling 325 miles.
Fred Herling, the park’s chief planner, said managers worked closely with angling groups and fishing guides over the last five years to try to find a “sweet spot’’ designed to allow reasonable access but also protect sea grass vital to the health of the bay, The shallow beds and banks that make for challenging navigation also shelter shrimp, crabs and small fish that feed valuable species such as redfish, bonefish and tarpon.
The preferred alternative would set aside 131,392 acres or 33 percent of the park’s Florida Bay waters — almost every shallow area two feet deep or less — as “pole/troll” zones. Another more environmentally protective but less likely alternative would raise that to 40 percent. Both options also call for new idle buffer zones along some prime fishing grounds, including Cape Sable, but maintain existing channels between the shallows.
“It’s clear that the damage is increasing and will always be increasing in South Florida unless we take it in a different direction,’’ Herling said.
All of the alternatives also would require that boaters and paddlers take an educational course, available online or at the park, and obtain a permit before taking to park waters.