Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park is located in the southern area of Florida in the United States. The park holds 172,971 acres, of which ninety-five percent consists of water. Native Americans first inhabited the area when water levels were low in the Biscayne Bay. Evidence has been found in the area supporting the inhabitance of other Native Americans, like the Tequesta people, from at least 2,500 years ago. European settlement did not occur in the area until the 19th century, when farmers settled on the island of Elliot Key. Many famous citizens passed through the area including Robert E. Lee, John James Audubon, Warren G. Harding, and Harvey Firestone.

The establishment of Biscayne National Park began after many inhabitants moved into the area. Residential settlements boomed throughout the 19th century and many commercial endeavors were proposed for the area, although most of these were met with negativity or mixed feelings. One of these instances occurred in 1962, when a seaport known as SeaDade was proposed to be built along Biscayne Bay. Many residents supported the idea, because it would bring new jobs into the area, but a group of environmentalists, led by local figures Lloyd Miller, Art Marshall, and Juanita Greene, created the Safe Progress Association and fought against the creation of the port. This group supported the plan to establish a national park in the southern Florida area.

Another early proposal for some form of national protection came from Ernest F. Coe, who suggested establishing Everglades National Park to include Biscayne Bay and other areas. In 1947, Key Largo and its nearby island and Biscayne Bay were removed from Everglades National Park during its establishment. Biscayne National Park received its first of protection when President Lyndon B. Johnson established Biscayne National Monument in 1968. The area was expanded in 1974 and in 1980, the same year that the park was officially designated as a nation park.

Biscayne National Park holds many areas on land and water, including barrier reefs, the Florida Keys, Elliott Key, small islands, and a mangrove forest along the shoreline. It is located in Miami-Dade County and extends from Key Largo in the south to Key Biscayne. The park is bordered by an area along the Florida Reef that is ten fathoms, or sixty feet, long.  Biscayne Bay is a shallow lagoon that reaches ten feet in depth and holds mangrove forests along its shoreline and neighboring small islands. The content of the water in this area of the park has been altered due to canals built in order to control the water flow into Florida. These projects, which drain water from the Everglades, have introduced freshwater into the saltwater in more quantities than rain and groundwater naturally bring into the area. In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was created in order to reverse the damage done by human intervention.

Biscayne National park holds a transitional zone that lies between Neotropical and Nearctic ecozones, creating four separate habitats within the park. These support large varieties of wildlife and include mangrove swamp habitats, shallow water or lagoon habitats, coral reef habitats, and limestone reef habitats. The area holds semitropical conditions that seasonally vary by small temperature drops and moisture content. The summer season is typically hot and rainy, while the winter season can be slightly cooler and often brings little rain. Because of the park’s location, it has experienced hurricanes every few years, making closings and repairs routine.

The mangrove swamp habitat occurs along the shoreline of Biscayne National Park along the mainland. This area mainly supports black mangroves and red mangroves, which grow out of shallow water, and white mangrove that occur further away from a water source. The swampy forest supports many animals that rely on both water and land, including crabs that latch onto trees and wading birds. The water where the roots of the trees emerge is murky and supports a variety of wildlife that is dependent upon sheltered environments, including fish, mollusk larvae, and crustacean larvae. The leaves of the mangrove trees support these creatures throughout the year, giving them an abundant food source. This area of the park is home to many bird species including Mangrove cuckoos, prairie warblers, and yellow-crowned night herons. The borders of the park, which occur near this area, are home to the American Crocodile. The power plant located at Turkey Point, which was established in 1963, has created an optimal nesting ground for this species, especially in the warm waters of the canals.

The waters in the bay of Biscayne National Park are open and support a variety of wildlife, including sea grasses and many types of fish, mollusks, and crustacean. Diving birds such as diving ducks and anhinga feed on the creatures that live in the shallow waters of the bay. Many marine mammals, especially those that are young and vulnerable, travel to the still waters in the bay, including manatees, and a population of double-crested cormorants reside in the bay throughout the year.

The keys, or islands, in Biscayne National Park range in size from 1,650 acres at Elliot Key to 200 acres at Little Totton Key. There are 37 smaller islands that extend across a five-mile area, located east of the shoreline.  In the northern part of the park, the keys consist of rocky cores, while in the southern areas of the park the keys are made of coral rock platforms. All of the islands hold mangroves along their edges and hardwood forests or subtropical flora in the interiors. Many plant species occur in these areas including mahogany trees, torchwood, and satinleaf and animal species including rats, mice, marsh rabbits, and rattlesnakes. The shores of the keys are important to loggerhead turtles that lay their eggs along the beach each year. Two rare species of butterfly, the Miami blue butterfly and Schaus’ swallowtail, occur on Elliot Key.

From the keys of Biscayne National Park, the sea floor descends gradually until a reaches a stable level, where a large coral reef is occurs. This living reef supports over two hundred species of fish along with worms, crustaceans, mollusks, anemones, and sponges. The park holds nearly 4,000 distinct sections of coral in patches and along bank-barriers, and every coral species in the park is considered threatened or endangered.  The reefs contain different types of coral, with barrier reefs containing mainly symmetrical brain coral and boulder star coral and offshore reefs holding staghorn coral and elkhorn coral. The offshore waters of the park, and its boundaries, occur past the reefs and sometimes hold pelicans or whales.

There are over fifty exotic species of plant in Biscayne National Park, of which twenty are thought to be invasive. The park also contains exotic animal species including black rats, lionfish, cane toads, and oscars. The lionfish is dangerous to native species due to its ravenous appetite and ability to adapt to new habitats, so it is quickly pushing out native species in many area of the park. Plant species that are threatening the natural flora in the park include torpedo grass, the tuberous sword fern, and Brazilian pepper, among many other species.

Biscayne National Park can be accessed by one area on the mainland, known as Dante Fascell Visitor Center, located at Convoy Point, but visitors can also access the park by concessioner boats or private boats in many other areas. The park offers many activities including concessioner boat tours, which allow visitors to see through glass-bottom boats, go snorkeling, and tour the waters and reefs of the park. Other activities including camping, typically conducted during the winter months, kayaking, windsurfing, and scuba diving. Fishing is a popular activity within the park, but this is regulated by the state of Florida, so a permit is required. The park holds many facilities including the ranger station and campground located on Elliot Key and the Dante Fascell Visitor Center near the park entrance. Biscayne National Park is open to visitors throughout the year.

Image Caption: Biscayne National Park. Credit: Catholic 85/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)