Nonprofit staff and tour guides are keeping South Florida national parks clean

In national parks around the country left understaffed by the government shutdown, trash is piling up, bathrooms are overflowing and visitors are running amok.

But not in South Florida.

Thanks to a small army of nonprofit staffers and the private companies that do business in South Florida’s four national park lands, a handful of visitor centers remain open and garbage is being collected.

At Everglades National Park, one of the most visited in the nation, “the parks are open, the concessions are operating and the Everglades Association is staffing visitor centers,” South Florida National Parks Trust executive director Don Finefrock said in an email.

During the last government shutdown in 2016, visitors’ centers at the parks were closed. This year, the government allowed them to remain open as long as they don’t use government resources or personnel.

“That’s where we step in,” said Jim Sutton, executive director of the nonprofit Florida National Parks Association. “We’ll never be able to replace [the park rangers], but we try very hard to accommodate the visitors.”

Sutton said his nearly 60 plain-clothed employees are emptying out trash cans, cleaning bathrooms and staffing the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve off Tamiami Trail. At the visitor center, employees are pointing tourists toward the available tours, an important link for the private businesses that rely on rangers to send customers their way.

“This is a very new safety net,” Sutton said. “And unfortunately it’s happening at our busiest time of the year.”

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The winter season is traditionally the busiest season for tourists in South Florida, and the shutdown has slowed traffic to several of the parks, tour operators said. This is another blow for the same industry badly hurt by Hurricane Irma in late 2017.

“You take two years with back-to-back hits and your most revenue-generating weeks are affected,” Sutton said. “It hurts.”

In Big Cypress, Steven Markley of Captain Steve’s Buggy Tours said he’s still feeling the financial pain from Irma, and the slowdown from the shutdown hasn’t helped. Whenever there’s a shutdown, he said, tourists assume the park is closed and stay away.

“Last year was a real crappy year,” he said. “With the hurricane and all that junk we had a real, real, real bad year. I don’t think it’s straightened out yet. Not yet, not for me.”

Finefrock, with South Florida National Parks Trust, said he worries about the impact a prolonged shutdown could have on park resources and staff morale.

Educational programs that the trust funds depend on seasonal staff, “many of whom can’t afford to go without a paycheck. If those seasonals give up and go home, the parks will have to cut programming, even after the government reopens,” he said.

As the shutdown continues, some visitors have taken it upon themselves to clean up the parks and preserves.

Alex Rubinsteyn, a 35-year-old medical researcher from New York, was hiking Gator Hoof Trail with his girlfriend Geddes Levenson on Monday when they noticed the parking area was covered in trash.

“People were being stupid,” he said. “Instead of taking their trash with them they’re shoving it into an already full trash bin.”

The couple found a roll of dog poop bags in their car and gathered as much garbage as they could that day. They plan to return this weekend for a more thorough cleanup with some friends.

For tour operators in other parks, the shutdown hasn’t changed much. That’s especially true in the Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys, where only one island is open. Tourists must arrive by ferry or seaplane, thanks to its location about 70 miles from Key West.

Terry Strickland, the general manager of the Yankee Freedom ferry tours to the Dry Tortugas, said his staff is already part of the cleanup crew for the island, Garden Key, and his boat is usually booked to capacity weeks in advance.

“The one island we take people to we take very good care of,” he said. “As far as business is concerned, business is actually good.”

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.
Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.