- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. — Not far from where the tram full of tourists glimpsed an alligator lurking among saw grasses, a guide dares them to wade knee-deep into the dark, swampy water surrounding them.

“Is she serious? Are you going to go in?” Kathy Nubling asks her husband, Al, not budging from her seat.

The California couple is touring the country trying to visit every national park. Just to be adventurous, they bare their feet, cross the wet grass and step blindly into the black water.

Catherine Morrison, 9, tries to get as far but settles for getting the bottoms of her feet wet.

“It was icky. There was all this gooey stuff in the water,” she says after skipping over a pile of ants and retreating to the safety of her seat.

The Everglades has never been a glamorous vacation spot. Despite efforts to promote the wetland as an eco-tourism destination, the inhospitable scenery keeps many tourists at Florida’s more popular beaches and theme parks.

As if mosquitoes and smothering humidity weren’t enough to tarnish the park’s image, decades of development and pollution have swallowed more than 5,000 square miles, half of the original wetlands. The changes wiped out some of the wildlife and surroundings that would be among the park’s biggest attractions.

An $8.4 billion restoration project under way after years of planning aims to reverse some of that damage. State officials hope the plan — billed as the world’s largest environmental restoration project — will lure more tourists to discover the rare wilderness.

“People who live in Indiana will scrimp and save because they want to make sure they take their kids to see the Grand Canyon. I hope with this kind of investment, people in Indiana will scrimp and save so they can make sure their kids have seen the Everglades,” says David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Everglades National Park is the largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains, covering 1.5 million acres. More than a million people visit its saw-grass prairies, mangrove shorelines and cypress forests each year, but that number is a fraction of the more than 75 million vacationers who came to Florida last year. The number of annual visitors to the park has dropped off substantially since the early 1970s, when visitation peaked at more than 1.7 million persons.

Meanwhile, millions more visitors are heading to other national parks each year, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks. In the past decade, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park have approached 5 million. At Yosemite, visitation topped 4 million in the 1990s.

It doesn’t help that Everglades National Park is recognized as the nation’s most threatened. More than a dozen species are endangered, making it difficult for visitors to snap pictures of many of them, including the Florida panther, West Indian manatee and red-cockaded woodpecker. The panther remains the most elusive; researchers estimate that just 75 roam the marshland.

The bird population has dwindled to 10 percent of what it was in the early 1900s, when hunters started killing birds for their fashionable feathers. Despite the decline, bird-watching has become one of the park’s most popular activities.

Shirley McBride, a tour guide at the park’s Shark Valley Visitors Center, often tells visitors that hunters would make more money off an ounce of feathers than if they had discovered the same in gold.

“I would think there would be nothing more beautiful than to look at a little tree island and see nothing but a plume of feathers like they used to,” Miss McBride lamented recently to a tour group scanning the skies for birds.

Hunters started abusing the Everglades in the late 1800s, but the worst disruptions started in the 1940s, when developers began carving the marshland with roads for subdivisions and canals to control flooding. The changes permanently altered the flow and depth of the slow-moving river. Pollution from farms and urban areas over the past few decades has choked out more native habitat, making some of the wetland’s unique plant life hard to spot.

The plant at the center of the best seller “The Orchid Thief” recently gave the Everglades some much-needed publicity. Visitors who brave the depths of swampland searching for the sought-after ghost orchid will likely meet disappointment, however. Author Susan Orlean never saw the mysterious white flower, and readers might even be put off by her description of the “miserable” place.

“This is definitely something you don’t normally experience. It was different than the usual rides and excitement,” says Michael Morrison, who brought his three children to the national park from their home in Fort Lauderdale, about 50 miles away. “But this is going to allow them to appreciate the wildlife and what is right here. It’s important that they know that.”

Tour guides recognize that many visitors understand little about the complicated ecosystem and spin tales that make it relevant, at least for Floridians.

As the Morrisons and others marvel at the few brave tourists who step into the muck, Miss McBride reaches in and pulls up some slimy, dark algae called periphyton, which is eaten by fish and snails and serves as the base of the Everglades food chain. The algae supports more biodiversity than is found anywhere else in North America. The water supplies a region with 6 million people.

“The water that you’re looking at is the water you used to brush your teeth and take a bath last night in South Florida,” Miss McBride tells them. “A lot of people find that unsettling.”

The Everglades is the only large subtropical wetland in North America — comparable only to Brazil’s Pantanal, which is the world’s biggest expanse of wetlands.

Appreciating the Everglades, the tranquil waters, towering cypress trees and saw-grass prairies that stretch for miles until they touch the clear blue sky just takes more time, says tour operator David Harraden.

“The more you’re out there, the more it just becomes an amazing place. It’s so remote and quiet,” says Mr. Harraden, who leads camping and kayaking trips through the western Everglades. “We poke along and see the water gliders, what’s in the spider webs. You see ospreys and rare birds, like the wood stork. Then we’ll paddle out in the Gulf [of Mexico], and there’s the dolphins.”

Many tours focus on how the Everglades looked decades ago, when the water was cleaner, the skies filled with birds and orchids seen nowhere else in the world made their home among stands of cypress trees.

If the Everglades restoration meets its goals in the decades to come, state officials hope the tours will have to alter their message and millions more tourists will come to hear it.

“I’m just fascinated with the wildlife and the water that stretches on forever,” Kathy Nubling says after a two-hour tram ride through a saw-grass prairie. “Everywhere you go in our country and our world, we’re losing or abusing something. We’re just lucky that someone’s working to preserve this.”

• • •

Everglades National Park is open daily, 24 hours a day. The nearest airports are Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers. The main entrance is near Homestead and Florida City. Admission fee is $10 per car. Visitation is highest December through April, when the weather is mild and pleasant, although occasional cold fronts may create freezing conditions. Summers are hot and humid.

For a 24-hour weather advisory for the park area, call 305/229-4522. For information on boat tours, try Flamingo Lodge Boat Tours at 239/695-3101 or Everglades National Park Boat Tours at 239/695-2591. For tram tours, call 305/221-8455. For general information about the park, contact 305/242-7700 or visit www.nps.gov/ever.

Everglades Restoration Plan: Visit www.evergladesplan.org.

Everglades Adventures: Based in Everglades City. Call 239/695-3299 or visit www.evergladesadventures.com. Tours, canoeing, fishing, packages.

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