Florida is home to America’s first national wildlife refuge, and may also be the first state to lose one. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has taken steps to evict the federal government from the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a decision that could have devastating impacts on both the ecological and political future of America’s Everglades.
As one of the largest publicly owned parcels of remaining Everglades lands, the refuge protects 144,000 acres of wetlands and cypress swamp and serves as water supply to the region. The land is owned by the state, and has been leased to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1951 to be managed within the network of federally protected lands and waters that make up the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The debate over this land is about its lease requirements for invasive plant management. Old-World climbing fern is a formidable opponent for refuge managers, overtaking native habitat. Its thick, leafy branches “re-sprout” almost anywhere, making eradication arduous and expensive.
If the state is successful in taking back these 144,000 acres, the land will be operated as “Water Conservation Area 1” with a very different mission than that of a national wildlife refuge.
While the recent statement of principles from the South Florida Water Management District indicates the agency will allow free public access, its commitment to conservation is sparse. There is virtually no mention of wildlife or water quality protection. The Governing Board says it will devote “sufficient resources” to control invasive plants, with no information about how an agency that has revoked a number of financial commitments in recent months will find these resources.
Perhaps more importantly, eviction could change the dynamic of the federal-state partnership that has long been the cornerstone of Everglades restoration. Given the state’s recent efforts to circumvent the need for land acquisition in the Everglades Agricultural Area to provide storage, treatment, and flow of water south to Everglades National Park, it would likely push to instead use this land to store polluted agricultural runoff.
CARA CAPP and MIKE BALDWIN, HOLLYWOOD
Editor’s note: Cara Capp and Mike Baldwin are national and state co-chairs of the Everglades Coalition, respectively.