The endangered Florida panther and so-called controlled burns, which decrease the threat of wildfires to homes and wildlife, could be the biggest losers from federal budget cuts hitting national parks and preserves in South Florida, rangers and environmentalists say.
“Fire is the most important things for all the wildlife and the landscapes in South Florida,” said Brad Cornell, policy associate for the Collier County Audubon Society.
He said that a cutback in prescribed burning, a tool frequently used in parks and wildlife preserves to burn up underbrush, could threaten homes near parks and hurt wildlife whose habitat is not renewed regularly.
Also of grave concern is monitoring the Florida panther population, once as few at 25 to 30 adults in the wild but still in danger.
“This is piling on the problems,” said John Adornato, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates for money to maintain the National Parks System. National parks across the country are having to cut $153 million because of the federal budget reduction deal known as “sequestration.”
Every national park must cut its budget by 5 percent, said National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olsen. This means a roughly $841,000 cut for the massive Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, which encompass more than 1.5 million acres, and a roughly $333,000 cut for the Big Cypress National Preserve, encompassing 729,000 acres in eastern Collier County.
Everglades Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said Everglades has not cut any of its fire control staff or reduced its prescribed burning this year. At Big Cypress, DeGross said his park only burned about 20,000 acres of the 50,000 to 75,000 acres it had planned to burn in part because of the budget cuts.
Big Cypress spokesman Bob DeGross said fewer prescribed burns could prove more expensive for the parks service down the road. Without the burns, wildfires will be harder to control and could become much more destructive, he said.
DeGross also said that Big Cypress has had to cut back on its aerial monitoring of the movements of the Florida panther. The Florida panther is listed on the endangered species list. Wildlife biologists. who released a panther back into the South Florida wild this week, estimated only 100 to 160 remain there.
The reduction in tracking panthers dismayed some activists such as Adornato.
“The National Parks Conservations Association is upset that we are not going to see adequate protection of the panther,” Adornato said.
Parks officials are working to determine how camping and ATV riding effect the panther, so reducing surveillance flights comes at a very bad time, Adornato said.
“If we have a year’s worth of data that gets lost because we don’t have the money, it makes it harder to predict what resources are needed,” he said. “All that science feeds into the broader restoration and protection goals.”
DeGross said Big Cypress already has started making cuts like laying off 13 seasonal employees a month early, meaning the cancellation of activities like guided hikes and canoe tours in April. Big Cypress also is closing some of its more remote campground sites resulting in the loss of about 50 camping spaces.
Kimball said he would not have to lay off any of his seasonal staff early at Everglades Park, but at least 17 full-time positions such as maintenance workers will be left vacant. The 38-mile main park road will also be mowed less frequently.
National Wildlife Refuges, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and aimed at preserving wildlife rather than providing recreation, also face budget reductions. Regional wildlife refuge spokesman Tom MacKenzie said he did not yet know how much would be cut from specific refuges like the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Jupiter Island and the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County.
Steve Horowitz, former president of the volunteer Friends of the Loxahatchee, said he was most worried about some unfilled position at the refuge, such as a biologist who specializes in battling invasive species. Most of the maintenance work at wildlife refuges is aimed at battling back invasive species, Horowitz said.
With the possibility of more federal cuts next year, Kimball, Nash and DeGross worry about already delayed maintenance falling further behind. Kimball said the federal parks service had a roughly $11 billion maintenance backlog because of budget cuts that preceded those mandated by the sequester.
Matt Kirby, spokesman for the Sierra Club, said that parks deteriorate when maintenance positions are not filled.
“The question is how much larger the backlog can get before you no longer have a functioning system anymore,” Kirby said.