Environment

South Florida national parks targeted for new management plan. Critics fear cuts.

A letter sent to employees Wednesday by the National Park Service's southeast regional chief and obtained by the Herald says the agency plans to restructure management at South Florida's four national parks to eliminate redundancy and align interests. Critics worry it will mean cuts for parks already battling budget cuts and increased pressure on natural resources.
A letter sent to employees Wednesday by the National Park Service's southeast regional chief and obtained by the Herald says the agency plans to restructure management at South Florida's four national parks to eliminate redundancy and align interests. Critics worry it will mean cuts for parks already battling budget cuts and increased pressure on natural resources. Miami Herald file photo

South Florida’s three national parks and lone national preserve, an earthly quilt of wetlands, forests, seagrass meadows, reefs and bountiful fishing grounds under constant threat from the state’s intense development and climate change, are getting ‘integrated.’

In a move touted as a possible model for the country, the National Park Service’s southeast regional director told park employees in an email Wednesday that the Service wants to combine management under a single organization intended to “more effectively align and leverage resources across park and preserve boundaries.” No layoffs are planned, said Everglades National Park superintendent Pedro Ramos, but the Service is looking to eliminate “redundancy.”

What that means remains unclear. But it could lead to fewer rangers and scientists who help protect parks with unique habitats and multiple challenges, including worsening water quality, invasive species and an increasing number of visitors.

“We are looking at this because we are one agency. We share a watershed,” said Ramos, who will oversee the reorganization. “Becoming more unified allows us to speak with one voice and become more efficient and effective in the way we deliver our work.”

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Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos. Everglades National Park

The move comes at a time when South Florida parks face more peril than perhaps ever before, from budget cuts to maintenance backlogs that amount to $88 million alone at Everglades National Park. Hurricane Irma also swept across all four, leaving a trail of damage.

The reorganization also comes amid reports of shake-ups in the National Park Service. In April, the Washington Post reported that at least seven top executives, including Biscayne National Park Superintendent Margret Goodro, were being targeted for transfers. Dozens of senior park staff nationwide were reassigned in 2017, after Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke complained that 30 percent of employees were “not loyal to the flag,” meaning the new administration.

Zinke also vowed to undertake a major reorganization that was more military in style to change the culture of the Service. In his 2019 budget proposal, President Trump also proposed eliminating more than 1,800 park employees. He has yet to nominate a director.

In the coming months, Ramos and senior staff from Biscayne and Dry Tortugas national parks and Big Cypress National Preserve will come up with a plan to combine management. The reorganization is not unlike last year’s streamlining at Caribbean parks, he said.

But park advocates fear the changes could mean even fewer resources for the already-strapped parks. While they share a watershed and common interests, many of the challenges they face are distinctly different.

A shortage of law enforcement officers at Biscayne National Park has caused ongoing problems for protecting reefs and fisheries in the mostly marine park. Scientists at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress have provided critical data for invasive species and the $16 billion Everglades restoration plan, which includes projects nearing completion and is expected to dramatically increase the amount of water flowing onto sensitive national land.

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University of Florida researchers captured this 18-foot, three-inch Burmese python while conducting research near Everglades National Park's Shark River trail in 2015. University of Florida

“We are worried about the precedent this would set,” said John Adornato, vice president of regional operations for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We’re pleased they’re addressing efficiencies, but what we don’t want is a reduction in resources.”

While no staff members appear to be on the chopping block, Adornato said all four sites have open positions, including jobs that are authorized but not currently budgeted, that could be eliminated. Combining resources — a marine biologist making recommendations about a nuclear power plant may not share the expertise of a wetlands biologist examining fracking — could also weaken management.

“At some point, they’re doing less with less and we would not be pleased with a staffing reduction when we know they’re already hamstrung,” he said.

News of the changes was delivered to park employees in Wednesday’s letter from Bob Vogel, who was named the Service’s southeast regional director in May by acting director Daniel Smith. Employees will be invited to listening sessions to share potential changes, he said.

“The goal of this re-organization is not to lose the identity of these four clear and distinct unique national park units, but to build upon their collective strengths,” he wrote. “Change can be difficult for many of us, but I am convinced that working together we can create a shared vision that will benefit our employees, the public, and our resources.”

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Biscayne National Park Ranger Gary Bremen picks up litter at Elliott Key, which offers overnight camping accessible only by boat. The National Park Service wants to restructure South Florida's four national parks to eliminate redundancies. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald file / 2011

No public sessions have been planned. But Adornato said comments could be sent to the parks conservation association, suncoast@npca.org, which would send concerns to the park service.

A deadline also hasn’t been set, Ramos said. Once a plan is reached by South Florida parks, it will be submitted to Vogel’s offices,” he said. “We are coming into this with an open mind and want to work with our staff in developing something for us that works for us.”

But environmental advocates worry reorganization is just another way of saying downsizing.

“Any talk about reorganizing things to make things more streamlined usually means potentially less employees and less resources for all the work that needs to be done,” said Sierra Club organizer Diana Umpierre.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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