Some of the most frequent and passionate visitors to Everglades National Park fear the park’s preferred blueprint for the future will drastically limit their access or shut them out altogether.
That was the overriding theme at a packed meeting Tuesday in Homestead — the first of at least seven public hearings on proposed plans to manage park lands and waters over the next 20-30 years. Four alternatives under the general management plan and wilderness study — in the works for more than ten years —face much more discussion and probably revisions before final approval in 2014.
Among the provisions in the park’s preferred alternative are: designating about a third of Florida Bay’s shallowest waters as pole-and-troll zones to protect sea grass beds — which feed and shelter fish, crustaceans and other sea life — from boat propeller damage; requiring boaters to take a test and obtain a permit before using park waters; and setting aside some 80,000 acres in the East Everglades (south of Tamiami Trail) as wilderness — no mechanized vehicles or even bicycles permitted — with another 9,900 acres set aside as potential wilderness.
Said David Olsen, board member of the angling group CCA-Florida, to park officials at Tuesday’s meeting: “There’s growing concern in the angling community…a lot of people frankly believe you don’t want us there.”
Speakers told Everglades superintendent Dan Kimball, park planner Fred Herling, and National Park Service southeast regional planning chief Ben West the preferred alternative doesn’t include enough areas where boats could operate at idle speed to get back and forth between the large pole-and-troll zones.
Said veteran flats guide captain Rob Fordyce of Homestead: “The more areas you limit access to, these areas are going to be so difficult to get to, you’ll have a whole bay with 20-foot-plus boats.”
Light-tackle guide and television personality captain Rick Murphy of Homestead demanded park officials listen to fishermen — or else they will take their case to South Florida members of Congress.
“Everyone in this room is upset about the scare tactics,” Murphy said. “You propose crazy stuff and we think we have to come up with a compromise.”
Captain Eric Herstedt, representing the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, came prepared with a laundry list of specific suggestions aimed at maintaining boater access while minimizing damage to sea grass, including: designating more idle-speed zones between pole-and-troll zones; installing tidal markers to indicate water levels in bights; leaving traditional navigation channels open but designating them “local knowledge”; moving sea buoys or ‘head pins’ that mark the entrances to channels further into open water to reduce cutting corners; and placing two members of the guides organization on an advisory board to work with park officials on adaptive management.
“Continued access is paramount,” Herstedt said. “The park should focus on education to create responsible users of the park.”
Nobody at the meeting voiced any objections to mandatory boater education or permitting.
Airboaters, froggers and others who visit the East Everglades were troubled by the proposed wilderness designation.
Barbara Jean Powell of the Everglades Coordinating Council said it would keep people out of a region that has become the epicenter of South Florida’s “python crisis”.
“It is important to protect South Florida’s flora and fauna,” Powell said. “These need human intervention. You need humans to kill pythons.”
David Anderson objected to a proposal to restrict airboats to designated trails in the East Everglades.
“It ruins the enjoyment of riding,” he said.
Other speakers at Tuesday’s meeting said they felt park officials were spending too much time on rules and regulations and not enough effort on larger environmental problems such as water quality and the python infestation.
“Pesticides and weed killers are creating a water quality problem in Flamingo,” said Danny Helms. “Focus on the quality of the water and put the money to the best use to do that.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, Kimball thanked the crowd for their input.
“This is exactly the feedback I was hoping for,” he said. “I’m prepared to meet with fishing clubs and groups and go out on the water.”
Kimball said park officials and their colleagues are “making some great headway” in restoring the Everglades ecosystem and doing whatever they can to control the python problem.
He also pledged to establish an advisory group to help guide park management and added that some “eloquent people” in the audience should be part of it.
The comment period for the long-term general management plan for Everglades National Park will be open through May 12. Public meetings will be held April 8 at the IGFA in Dania Beach; April 9th at Edison State College in Naples; April 10 at the Monroe County Government Center in Key Largo and April 11 at Florida International University in Miami. All meeting are from 5:30 p.m. till 8:30 p.m.
To read the plan and comment electronically, go to: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/EVER, then “open for comment”.