Don’t be distracted by the beauty. Florida’s national parks are falling apart

“Backlog for repairs and hurricane damage taking a toll on Everglades National Park”

Botanist, Roger Hammer gives a brief tour of a trail blocked by fallen trees and a saltwater marsh with damage done to a large Cowhorn Orchid knocked over by high winds from Hurricane Irma at Everglades National Park on Jan. 23, 2018.
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Botanist, Roger Hammer gives a brief tour of a trail blocked by fallen trees and a saltwater marsh with damage done to a large Cowhorn Orchid knocked over by high winds from Hurricane Irma at Everglades National Park on Jan. 23, 2018.

It’s high season at Everglades National Park, the cool months when tourists finally start to outnumber mosquitoes, and the simple construction of sawgrass, sky and clouds appears most beautiful. But not everything is so pretty.

Near the main entrance in Florida City, drivers head into a visitor center parking lot worn down to gravel. Picnickers lunch near barricades and caution tape blocking steps to a shuttered dining hall at Flamingo, the park outpost on Florida Bay. Shivering campers endure broken solar-powered showers at the only overnight accommodations more than a dozen years after a hurricane demolished the old Flamingo hotel and cottages, the promises to rebuild them still unmet.

On the Southwest Coast, a trailer greets visitors at the Everglades City entrance rather than a new welcome center first approved, but left unfunded, since the first Bush presidency.

Four months after Hurricane Irma buzz-sawed its way across South Florida, the state’s busiest national park is understandably still recovering. But the shoddy conditions date way before the latest storm. Over the decades, the park and two other vast national wildernesses in South Florida have amassed enormous maintenance backlogs, lengthy lists of fixes big and small, from derelict ranger stations and research buildings to rundown visitor centers and weathered chickees.

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The Flamingo Visitor’s Center was already in disrepair when Hurricane Irma caused more damage in September. Al Diaz Miami Herald Staff

Everglades National Park claims the largest backlog by far, with the last official tally in July calculated at $88 million. With lost revenue following Irma and the recent government shutdown, that’s now likely higher. Across the state, the tab amounts to $254 million, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

By another measure — the cost to totally replace aging facilities in today’s dollars — the tab soars into the billions, Pew found.

“They’re really starved,” New Jersey resident Tim Corlis said Tuesday after a quick stop by Everglades’ battered amphitheater as part of a bucket-list journey to visit all the nation’s parks. “We’re very cognizant that the park service does a tremendous amount, with almost nothing.”

The massive repair backlog is nothing new — the Everglades’ to-do list totaled $58 million under the Obama administration. But the Trump administration’s approach to the nation’s wild lands, from shrinking monuments and clearing the way for drilling and mining, to slashing spending in a proposed budget, is setting off alarms. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to cut the National Parks Service budget by nearly $300 million and eliminate more than 1,200 jobs — meaning 90 percent of the nation’s parks would lose staff.

Rather than ask Congress to address the $11.3 billion national maintenance backlog, the administration is also proposing doubling entrance fees at 17 popular parks during their five busiest months, angering park advocates who say the plan could backfire if higher costs drive away visitors. The administration has also ditched the nation’s efforts to address climate change, an issue especially critical to South Florida’s parks.

Earlier this month, 10 of the 12 members on the Service’s national advisory panel quit in protest, complaining that Zinke repeatedly refused to meet with them.

“It’s like if you have a car and don’t get your oil changed every six months,” said John Adornato, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “These are our national treasures and we’re letting them deteriorate.”

Botanist and author Roger Hammer climbs over one of the fallen buttonwoods that blocks the Rowdy Bend Trail at Everglades National Park. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

With 6,700 square miles of vast open waters, dense mangrove forests and stretches of stark marshland, it’s easy to overlook the sublime beauty that puts South Florida among the nation’s top parks. The state’s 11 parks drew nearly 11 million visitors in 2016, and dumped more than $653 million into Florida’s economy, according to park service estimates. Arizona, which has twice as many and includes the Grand Canyon, drew 11.8 million tourists and generated nearly $1 billion.

In the 21st century, accommodations at Everglades have never been lavish. The old lodge felled by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 had noisy air-conditioners and dated decor. The park’s two houseboats come with smelly generators, flimsy mattresses and plenty of bug carcasses.

But more than a half century since the $1 billion Mission 66 project — the last national fixer upper — South Florida’s harsh climate has taken a toll. Dozens of buildings, from staff housing to the old Nike missile shelters, need repair. Campgrounds need landscaping, nearly every chickee requires fixes and despite promises to rebuild, the site of the old lodge remains vacant. Visitors seem to have taken notice, too. In the last five years, Everglades National Park numbers steadily declined from 1.1 million in 2012 to 930,907 in 2016.

“The roads are kind of bumpy,” Estella Catron, who traveled from Virginia with her son Travis, said as she looked at a map kiosk outside the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, where the patchy pavement has worn to gravel.

Some signs of disrepair are obvious, and caused by the recent hurricane: Along the Rowdy Bend walking trail, toppled white mangroves and buttonwoods crisscross the path every 30 feet or so. Canoe trails that paddlers use for short-cuts are also blocked.

“They’re not really sanctioned, but to get from point A to point B, you’ve got to go through these creeks,” said botanist and field guide author Roger Hammer, who makes regular trips to the park in search of orchids and other native plants.

After the hurricane, Hammer discovered a champion cowhorn orchid had blown over. The orchid, which he suspects began growing on a splintered tree trunk after Hurricane Donna in 1960, survived both Andrew and Wilma and had become an unofficial park highlight. Sick with the flu, Hammer was unable to rescue the plant. The park staff, with a fifth of positions unfilled, was up to their necks in bigger projects and, because the orchid was in a wilderness area, would not have saved it anyway.

“This was a grand champion,” said Hammer, who had led the former park superintendent and Interior officials across the rugged salt marsh prairie to view the orchid. “It wouldn’t have taken much to have people come and pick it up.”

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Botanist and author Roger Hammer photographed a massive cowhorn orchid in 2016. In September, Hurricane Irma toppled the prized specimen. Roger Hammer Roger Hammer

In the weeks after the storm, rangers raced to make repairs to get the park up and running in time for the peak season, when bugs clear out, northerners fill up campgrounds and tourists line up for airboat rides along the Tamiami Trail. The park depends on the seasonal spike in fees to carry operations during the slow summer. But after Irma, it took weeks to reopen some popular attractions, like Shark River. Parts still remain closed, including some campgrounds around Flamingo, with incomplete fixes in danger of being moved to the backlog.

Repairs are prioritized based on “function and use,” said park spokesman Denese Canedo. Projects that don’t get done by the end of the year wind up on the deferred list, she said.

“I think they kind of opened it up on a wing and a prayer,” said camper Michael Healy, describing blocked trails and confusion over reserved campsites. “It’s full but they don’t have anybody to manage it.

A year ago, Healy and his traveling companion, Kathey Royal, sold their houses to embark on a yearlong trek to the nation’s parks with their two dogs. So far, they’ve hit Yellowstone, Olympic National Park in Washington and Badlands in South Dakota. Everglades isn’t the only one falling on hard times, he said.

“It just seems like the park service is getting slashed further and further everywhere you go. Some places are just like, ‘We don’t have enough people to staff the main entrance gate so we’re trusting you to put your money in the box and fill out your slip,’” he said.

The gatehouse at the Flamingo campground may be empty, he said, but at least there are meager services.

“There’s a bath house. There’s running water. It’s not hot water. But it’s warm enough now we can take a shower.”

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It’s been more than a half century since the U.S. gave its national parks a facelift with the $1 billion Mission 66 project that included a new, modern Flamingo Visitor Center and lodge at Everglades National Park. A backlog of repairs at the park now tops $88 million, with about $254 million in repairs needed at national parks across the state. Courtesy of South Florida National Parks Trust

That wasn’t always the case. For years, the Flamingo Lodge, part of the Mission 66 project, drew visitors year round. A bayfront pool was a remote luxury, along with the AC. After it was demolished, the park service promised to rebuild. But more than a dozen years later, the footprint remains empty. Superintendent Pedro Ramos said last year that the Service had finally selected a contractor to build and run 24 eco cottages and 20 tents slated to be up and running later this year. In August, Zinke announced a $720,000 Centennial grant to jump start work. But so far, there’s been no groundbreaking.

“Talk about lost revenue,” Hammer said. “Holey moley.”

With more than a half century since the last makeover — triggered by public outrage over deteriorating conditions — Pew’s Director for the Restore America's Parks project, Marcia Argust, said the problem is caused mostly by unreliable funding.

“When folks think of the parks, they don’t often think of the infrastructure necessary to run over 28,000 buildings and 12,000 roads,” she said. “There’s water and sewage systems that you don’t always think about.”

Take channel markers. Not sexy but critically important. Over the last three decades, boat traffic in Florida Bay has increased 250 percent, Adornato said, raising the risk of groundings and endangering vital seagrass beds that provide nurseries for young fish and hunting grounds for the lucrative sportfish industry. Irma also left the bay cluttered with submerged obstacles. A $600,000 project to install channel markers around the flats sits on the waiting list, he said.

Fixes to parking lots at Everglades National Park alone total $7 million. Water and waste projects have a $832,000 backlog, Adornato said. Another $2.9 million in work is needed at Pine Island and the Flamingo marina.

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Barricades now block stairs leading up to the old dining hall attached to the Flamingo Visitor’s Center. Al Diaz Miami Herald Staff

But even obvious, popular projects have been long delayed. In 1989, when Congress approved a major water project to restore the flow of water into the park, it also gave the park the go-ahead to replace the Gulf Coast visitor center with a new building named in honor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The center sits on the edge of Everglades City, a tiny fishing village where businesses rely heavily on park visitors.

“That has not happened,” Adornato said. “And now Hurricane Irma has destroyed that building because it wasn’t up to code and able to withstand hurricane force winds.”

A bipartisan bill that would ensure money for fixes and prevent the backlog from again accumulating is now gaining support in Congress. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, one of the bill’s 55 cosponsors, along with four other Florida representatives, worries the backlog could be causing both immediate and long-term damage to the park, said his spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.

An Eastern pygmy blue butterfly, about as big as a fingernail, rests on its host plant, a saltwort, in an Everglades National Park prairie. Dozens of butterflies danced across a prairie filled with the plants this week. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“The Congressman believes any fee changes should require input from the public and, if deemed necessary, be implemented gradually,” she said.

For Mark Staszko, who has been bringing special education students from his Pennsylvania school to the park for the last decade to camp and do volunteer work, improving conditions would be a relief — especially replacing the long-lost lodge.

“That,” he said, “would be a nice little feature.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich