The drive that leads to the main entrance of Everglades National Park, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, is populated with tourist spots and farm fields, with tour buses angling into Robert Is Here for mamey shakes and farmers maneuvering water trucks around rows of winter vegetables. There’s a state prison, migrant housing and even a charter school.
To Dan Kimball, these represent the varied and often competing interests he’s juggled for the past decade as superintendent of a park that is not only a protected wilderness, but a massive water supply and filtration system for its six million neighbors.
When he retires later this month after three decades in the park service, the hydrologist who never saw Florida sawgrass before he arrived will leave behind a place better positioned to handle those demands, say many who have worked, and sometimes fought, with him.
“In many ways, it’s a big experiment,” Kimball, 65, says of the park’s most pressing problem, to restore and manage its water flow. “But an important thing to remember is this is competing for restoration money [with projects around the nation]. So we need to show we can deliver and we’re not just about fighting.”
Under his watch, a one-mile stretch of a new Tamiami Trail bridge that will eventually help restore the flow of water to the parched eastern Everglades was completed after decades of delay. Gov. Rick Scott subsequently promised $90 million in August to help complete a second 2.6-mile stretch. The park has also worked with rock miners to build an underground barrier outside its boundaries that will hold more water in the park’s marshes. And, working with anglers, Kimball helped establish one of the nation’s — and perhaps the world’s — largest no-motor, pole and troll zones in an effort to protect sea grass from boat damage.
Kimball also managed to fix five sides of the old six-sided Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (the sixth is in the works), while restoring three old Cold War missile barns that had become storage sheds for hurricanes in recent years. A replica of a 41-foot Nike Hercules missile now sits in one.
“He didn’t see Everglades National Park in isolation. He saw it as part of the greater American Everglades,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation that has struggled for more than a decade to restore the vast River of Grass. “He’s not a bureaucrat who says no, and there are too many bureaucrats who say no.”
If there’s one persistent problem that continues to dog the park and Kimball, it is the invasion of exotic animals and plants, specifically Burmese pythons. Though he failed, his determination to eradicate the snake that scientists say has consumed entire populations of raccoons, foxes, bobcats and other mid-sized mammals in the park demonstrates his key strengths — diplomacy and ingenuity — according to those who’ve worked with him.
“Dan is one of the most easy-to-work-with people, whether you end up agreeing with him or not, and that means a lot,” said John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “It is an amazing place with incredible diversity, and that was one of the reasons it was created. Dan’s had a lot of respect for that diversity and the essence of Everglades National Park.”
At the recent ribbon-cutting for a new visitors center at Shark Valley, Miccosukee Tribe Assistant Chairman Roy Cypress Jr. showed up. While the U.S. government and tribe are often at odds, Cypress said the tribe had found Kimball to be an amenable representative.
“It’s just sitting down and talking to him,” he said. “We have to co-exist. We don’t want to be like the Hatfields and McCoys shooting at each other.”
Kimball had been overseeing the park service’s Water Resources Division, having spent most of his career in Colorado, when he was handed the keys to a park that had come to symbolize man’s failed meddling with nature. Having helped settle water rights issues threatening Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, he seemed perfectly suited. Those around him say his work to untangle the bridge plan, authorized in 1989 but mired in legal disputes and changing science, should not be underestimated.
“His being chosen and his background in hydrology was to understand what Everglades restoration was all about,” said Adam Gelber, a former park ranger, consulting scientist and member of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission. “There are so many resources out there, and you had to have knowledge about it all to understand the nuances.”
What Kimball hadn’t bargained for was the wildlife, which ultimately led him to execute some of his more creative ideas.
When turkey vultures began shredding the rubber windshield wipers and window trim on parked cars near the Anhinga Trail, he signed off on a plan for “effigy” vultures, which is a nice way of describing the rotting vulture carcasses that rangers hung from trees hoping to scare off the birds. The plan lasted two days before being deemed a failure, but Kimball was willing to try.
And when it came to snakes, he was equally willing to try almost any plan with a chance of working: Judas snakes, equipped with radio transmitters, sent out to lead rangers to other snakes, drones, sentinel rabbits and human hunters imported from India, where a friend assured him locals had developed a particularly successful snake-elimination technique. He drew the line, though, at sending elephants out to patrol or positioning snipers on blimps, two helpful suggestions from park visitors.
In addition to trying to protect sea grasses and eliminating scarring from boat propellers that damage the “submerged” wilderness lands he must protect, Kimball also focused on the park’s cultural features. He hired a cultural resources officer and with the help of local veterans, set about restoring the missile barns. When he first arrived in Miami, Jackie Cruset, now a senior program coordinator with the National Parks Conservation Commission but then with The Wolfsonian-Florida International University research center, remembers asking him to lead her book club in reading Michael Grunwald’s book about the Everglades, The Swamp.
“At the book club, the first question presented to him was, ‘When is Flamingo going to be rebuilt?’ ” Cruset said.
The destruction of the historic Flamingo lodge during the 2005 hurricane season when Katrina and Wilma caused millions of dollars in damage to the park remains one of his regrets. Kimball was able to come up with a redevelopment plan that included 24 cottages and 10 eco tents, but he failed to get any bidders for the project. His team revised the bid to include a longer lease, and it plans on re-advertising the project in May, he said.
“Here we are nine years after those storms rolled through and we don’t have the redevelopment of Flamingo, which is sad,” he said.
Another project Kimball regrets not completing is the park’s general management plan, a blueprint for operations. A draft plan, which included increasing protected areas and eliminating outboard motors from about a third of the park, was roundly rejected by anglers. So Kimball and his team hit the road, holding repeated meetings between Miami and Key West to come up with a revision now being worked out.
“I said, ‘OK, we got it wrong, so show us. Help us. Teach us.’ And they did. About 30 or 40 people stepped up and on their own they did it. They know the park in some instances better than us,” he said. “The challenge is how to manage a submerged wilderness.”
The balancing act between the park’s needs and external forces is what led to a successful tenure, said Dave Hallac, who had overseen the park’s biological resources under Kimball before becoming chief of resource management at Yellowstone National Park three years ago. While a new superintendent has not yet been named, Shawn Benge, now deputy director of the southeast region of the park service, arrives in late March to step in as acting superintendent.
“The biggest issue facing Dan was the incredible pressure to manage what I would call both the home and away games,” Hallac said. “The away game is extremely complex. It’s advanced calculus because you’ve got millions of people surrounding Everglades National Park, practically right up to the boundary, and every use in the book, from agricultural to people in housing developments. You name it and there’s some form of pressure or complication that requires someone who is a master at balancing issues, and Dan is a master at doing that.”