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With winter here, these are the glory days in Everglades National Park. Cold fronts chase the mosquitoes, alligators congregate where visitors can easily see them, and, as if on cue, anhingas and herons preen and pose to accommodate anyone toting a camera. "It is very peaceful and so different from any other park anywhere," Wolfgang Germann, a 59-year-old Munich engineer, says as he strolls the boardwalk at Royal Palm Visitor Center.
Germann, camping in the park the week of December 15 with his wife, Ellen, is among the vanguard of an estimated 800,000 seasonal tourists, many of them European, who in the next five months will drive or boat into the largest national park in the eastern U.S. And as he meanders through the sawgrass, peering down at soft-shelled turtles and foot-long garfish that hang motionless at his feet, Germann says that what he has seen of the vast wetland on this visit looks like what he remembers when he first came 11 years ago.
But behind the scenes, Everglades National Park is in trouble. Park buildings are dilapidated; trucks, tractors, and other equipment are falling apart; exotic species -- melaleuca trees and wild boar, for example -- are multiplying; and rangers and police and fire protection are stretched thin. "Visitors don't know we are in dire straits," admits park Superintendent Maureen Finnerty. "That's the good news -- they are happy. But from the inside, we see enormous problems."
The problems of which Finnerty speaks go beyond the much-publicized woes of pollution and ecosystem degradation being targeted by the $8 billion restoration project. The 30-year plan to restore the flow of fresh water to historic patterns is called the world's biggest replumbing job and ultimately will determine whether the Everglades survives as a designated World Heritage Site or becomes a landfill and then a site for a Wal-Mart Supercenter (a big one).
No, Finnerty's concerns are more immediate. "We need another $10 million a year to run this park in the way it should be run," she says. "And in this budget climate, it's doubtful we're going to get it."
Indeed, to cope with an unprecedented budget crunch on the eve of the park's high season, managers have quietly made some drastic changes: cutting back on ranger-led tram tours, canoe trips, and walks; canceling scores of environmental programs; and closing down some recreation areas inside the park, including Chekika, the campground at the west end of SW 168th Street. At the same time, Finnerty and other park officials have begun to speak candidly about the condition of many park facilities. Their word: "shabby."
"The exteriors of many park facilities are 'shabby' and have been the subject of numerous visitor complaint letters," according to a 30-page business plan that documents the park's financial malaise. "The erosion of funding for maintenance programs has all but eliminated routine maintenance of buildings, trails, and roads."
Nowhere is shabbiness more apparent than at Flamingo, the campground and recreation area on Florida Bay, 35 miles south of Homestead. Here, where the Florida Peninsula peters out, the park operates a restaurant and a 102-room motel that was built in the 1950s and is usually sold out over winter weekends despite antique plumbing and furnishings so funky as to appeal only to hard-core birders -- who are too obsessed to care -- and time-trippers nostalgic for the Eisenhower era. Throw in Flamingo's decaying outdoor toilets, dingy visitor center, primitive outdoor movie theater, and tiny gift store-cum-bait shop and you've got a vacation experience so retro, park officials confess, that visitors "are unable to partake in substantive learning and enjoyment..."
This year, Everglades National Park has a base budget of just over $14 million, of which 86 percent goes to pay the salaries of the park's 230 full-time employees. That leaves just $2 million for facilities maintenance, fire and police protection, visitor programs, control of exotic plant species, and upgrades to equipment and water- and sewage-treatment plants. "The park is suffering," laments the red-haired Finnerty, who has spent 30 of her 58 years with the National Park Service and was named superintendent here in September 2000. "People have the perception that we're rich because of the money for restoration. But most of that $8 billion goes to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."
When President Bush joined Finnerty for a sweaty early-June photo-op in the River of Grass in 2001, he mentioned the uniqueness of alligators and crocodiles living side by side, made a joke about his hopes that Republicans and Democrats could do likewise, and voiced support for preserving the Glades. But that endorsement did not translate to any congressional boost in the operating budget.
Part of the problem is that despite its ecological rarity and diversity, Everglades National Park is not all that popular in comparison with some other big parks in the federal system. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, drew 9.1 million visitors last year. More than 4 million went to Grand Canyon National Park, almost 3.5 million each to Olympic National Park and Yosemite.
By comparison, just a million people took in the Everglades in 2002, making the 1.5-million-acre preserve the 20th most popular of the nation's national parks and 71st in the rankings among all 384 parks, recreation areas, and monuments in the federal system, according to the National Park Service. And the number of visitors is declining, down from the 1972 peak of 1.7 million. Sure, the restoration is a massive project with major scientific significance. And important research is going on concerning many of the 68 threatened and endangered species fighting for life on the watery prairie. But the allure of the Everglades is subtle -- too subtle, perhaps, for the drop-in tourist with Disney-ized expectations. One of the rarest birds in the world, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, lives just off the park's main road (called the Ingraham Highway), but how many people ever see it? No mountains, no invitingly cool pine forests, no charismatic mega fauna -- like a moose, for example. There are plenty of alligators, true, but most of the time, these toothy predators just lie there like logs, and poking at them is not only unadvised but forbidden, because they're quick when aroused.
Park surveys find that repeat visitors are rare, and so too are locals. German and French are more often heard along the Royal Palm boardwalk than the two most-used local tongues, English and Spanish.
Sagging attendance has been a factor in the Everglades budget dilemma since Congress six years ago authorized each park to retain 80 percent of gate admissions and concession fees. (The park entrance fee is now $10 per car.) Luring visitors with Indian-style alligator wrestling or by salting the marshland with rutting moose is not an option. But according to park spokesman Rick Cook, there are some potential attractions. One is the abandoned Cold War-era Nike missile base not far from the park's headquarters and main visitor center. The National Park Service wants to list it on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, however, it's not much to contemplate now -- some underground bunkers and a few concrete block buildings that once housed nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules missiles, meant for Cuba; now they're honeycombed with wasp nests.
Another possibility are airboat tours, now forbidden in the park. Along the south side of Tamiami Trail (U.S. Route 41), the parks' northern boundary, are three commercial swamp-buggy businesses that are within the acreage the federal government is buying back as part of the restoration project. One or all of those operations could survive as a park-managed concession, Cook says.
Raising money for the park and persuading locals that there is more to do in the Glades than swat bugs and be solicitous of alligators is also one of the missions of the South Florida National Parks Trust, created just this year. "We want to integrate the park into the fabric of South Florida life," says Miami attorney T. Neal McAliley, one of 15 South Floridians named to the trust's board of trustees by the Washington-based National Parks Foundation. Other trustees include chairman Robert Chisholm, a Miami architect; University of Miami Law Professor Mary Doyle, who served as counselor to the secretary of the interior in the Clinton administration; Miami advertising executive Leslie Pantin Jr.; and noted environmentalist Nat Reed of Hobe Sound.
But McAliley, who before entering private practice litigated several environmental cases as a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, says the trust is not going to fork over that money to Finnerty and her staff simply to pay for more rangers or to conduct pest control. "The purpose of the trust is not to make up for government shortfalls," he explains. "And we don't want to be just another environmental group which gets money and spends it."
Rather, what McAliley wants is to build in the local community an appreciation for the park that will generate both corporate grants and first-time visits. But he acknowledges it's a tough sell.
"[It] is never going to be a resort," grants McAliley, a 37-year-old native Miamian who grew up hiking, canoeing, and camping in the Glades. "There are some hardships involved and some things you need to learn to enjoy it. I think one of the greatest attributes of the park is the silence, the serenity. Camping in the Everglades, I get a sense of peace and contentment I don't find anywhere else. And as South Florida gets more crowded and crazier, that becomes more important."
In keeping with his family tradition, McAliley will spend New Year's Eve with friends and relatives at Flamingo, not camping this time but staying instead in a no-frills $95-a-night room. He acknowledges the lack of luxury. "There is water there, and it's... warm," he laughs. "But I don't go there to stay in a hotel room. I go to the park to see nature, and it's there in spades."