A glimpse of the “preferred’’ future for visitors to Everglades National Park:
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.
John Adornato, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which developed some pilot educational programs, praised the proposals. A 10,000-acre poll/troll zone already in place in Snake Bight, a popular shallow water fishing spot near Flamingo, was developed with the help of anglers and has been generally well received, he said.
“Florida Bay is so unique and so different from water bodies most anglers use,’’ he said. “This is a huge win for the sea grass and a huge win for the fishery.’’
For anglers, who have worked with park managers for five years, the new maps are a major improvement from a series of restrictive 2007 proposals. Those plans, which drew a strong backlash from guides and angling groups, called for effectively shutting motorboats out of 150 square miles of the bay and most of the Whitewater Bay backcountry north of Flamingo.
Mike Kennedy, who chairs an Everglades park committee for the Coastal Conservation Association, which represents recreational anglers, said his group was just starting to review the 614-page plan packed with maps, charts and proposals.
Reading from a CCA statement, he said the group remained “concerned about reasonable angler access and the large pole and troll zones, which we believe will act to restrict access.’’
Herling stressed that the proposals could still be tweaked. “We know the public is going to be poring over these maps,’’ he said.
In other proposals, the park is considering “user capacity” programs intended to prevent over-crowding. That would most likely be used at popular spots like Shark Valley on Tamiami Trail, where bikers and hikers sometimes spill out of the parking lot on winter weekends, Herling said. But it also could be used to preserve peace and quiet in isolated back country areas.
“Some places you go, you expect to see hundreds of people in a day. Some places you may not want to see anybody,’’ he said.
Three of the four alternatives also call for continuing to allow commercial airboat operations in an area known as the Eastern Everglades Addition, a 109,000-acre swath off Tamiami Trial added in 1989. A handful of remaining tourist stops in the area, including Coopertown and Everglades Safari Park, have been in operating in limbo since, uncertain of whether the park would shut them down or try to buy them out.
Herling said airboats have a future in the park – but operating as concessionaires on designated trails in a special 22,000-acre section. That area also would also be open to a small number of private air-boaters granted lifetime permits after the park’s 1989 expansion. Airboats are not allowed elsewhere in the park.
Rick Farace, whose family has run Everglades Safari since 1968, said the plan “sounds promising but nothing is written in stone.’’
There were still a lot of unknowns, he said – mostly about money. The National Park Service hadn’t made a buyout offer in at least 15 years, he said, and no one had yet discussed the terms of a concession contract.
“I would love to stay and continue what I’m doing and help the park,’’ Farace said. “I just hope they will be fair to all of us on the Trail.’’