In the past months, the headlines have been dominated by news of yet another bad day for the stock market. But, there is another casualty of the recession that probably isn’t getting as much press. While stocks continue to plummet, the Everglades of South Florida may also be falling on hard times as a result of the financial crisis.
The Everglades are arguably one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Dubbed the “River of Grass” by naturalists, it is home to a vast array of plant and animal life. Yet, as a result of development pressure, the Everglades are in a severe state of decline. If left unchecked, the Everglades are in danger of succumbing to complete ecological collapse.
One reason that the Everglades are so special, and fragile, is the unique hydrology that has shaped it. Slightly sloping bedrock in the region has created a sheet-like flow of water through a web of interconnected ecosystems that spans from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of Florida, an area roughly 100 miles long and 60 miles wide.
This sheet flow has given rise to the distinct features of the park – including 1,100 species of trees and plants and 350 species of birds – some of which do not exist anywhere else in the world. (Click here to watch a short video about the ecology of the Everglades.)
Since the late-1800’s, however, the Everglades ecosystem has undergone significant engineering to enhance drainage necessary for settlement and agricultural production. As a result, less than 50% of the original Everglades remain today, resulting in the devastation of many wildlife populations in the park. Because it has been recognized that the survival of the Everglades is dependent upon water flow, restoration efforts have made concerted efforts to restore natural hydrologic regimes.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, deemed the largest ecosystem restoration project in U.S. history, has been key in implementing policies to restore the River of Grass. One major component of the plan has been the purchase of significant tracts of agricultural land just south of Lake Okeechobee by the State of Florida. The land, owned by the U.S. Sugar Corporation, would be a key component to returning sufficient water flow to the endangered ecosystem.
This past June, Governor Charlie Crist announced a deal in which the state would purchase 187,000 acres of land owned by U.S. Sugar Corporation. While this plan was subsequently scaled back to cut costs in November, it has maintained the intention of purchasing 180,000 acres of land for a price of $1.34 billion dollars – no small feat! In the proposed plan, agricultural activities would be phased out gradually over the next 6 years.
The buyback was initially hailed as a huge win for restoration efforts, gaining the backing of many environmentalists and politicians alike. Things were looking up.
Yet in recent weeks, the plan has come under increased scrutiny as anxiety over the national financial crisis has intensified. The price tag has raised concerns among some elected officials over the need to raise property taxes in the region. Additionally, soaring unemployment rates across the country have made the thought of phasing out the 1,700 jobs created by U.S. Sugar Corporation a little less palatable.
The tug of war over the land buyback illustrates the complexity of environmental management and ecosystem restoration plans. The need to balance ecological concerns with a varying array of social, economic, and political issues is inherently challenging. And when money gets tight, funding for such initiatives is often the first thing to go.
Yet, while the markets may be fluctuating, there is one thing that won’t change. If action is not taken to restore water flow to the Everglades soon, there may be irreversible consequences – including the complete destruction of the Everglades – and that’s a price that none of us can afford to pay.