Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is located in the state of Florida in the United States. The park holds 1,508,538 acres of land and holds twenty percent of the original Everglades. This park is the third largest national park in the lower forty-eight states. The area was once inhabited by Native American tribes, like the Calusa and Tequesta peoples, and the Seminole people, a mixture of Creek people, escaped African slaves, and other Native Americans, known as the Seminole Nation. Most of this tribe was forced to relocate to reservations in Oklahoma after the Seminole Wars that occurred in 1842.

American exploration and settlement of the Everglades area began after the Seminole War. Small settlements appeared along the coast, but these were isolated. The largest and most prosperous city in the area was Everglades City, located near Chokoloskee and established in 1920, which served as the beginning point of the Tamiami Trail. In the 1880’s, many efforts were conducted to drain the Everglades of water by building canals. These efforts did not initially harm the wildlife in the area and created more land that could be used for agriculture. The area experienced a large growth in population as land was drained and sold before any properties could be built. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on better canals, the rise and fall of Lake Okeechobee and frequent rains affected the citizens. After flooding, hurricanes, and drought, the effects of human encroachment on the area could be seen.

Conservation of the Everglades area began in the early twentieth century, when resident voiced their concerns for diminishing wildlife and resources. Residents of Miami first proposed that the Everglades should be nationally protected in 1923, after which the Tropical Everglades National Park Commission was formed to study the area. This group was led by Ernest F. Coe, who formed the first plan for the park and was given the nickname Father of Everglades National Park. Although a bill was passed through Congress that established the area as a national park, it did not allot any federal money for creating the park. Congress passed a bill for the restoration of the park in 2000 known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Everglades National Park extends across Monroe, Collier, and Dade counties in Florida, with a typical elevation between zero and eight feet above sea level. The highest point in the park, located on top of a Calusa-built shell mound, reaches twenty feet above sea level. Most of Florida holds a flat landscape, and although rock formations are not typical to any area in the park, the limestone that can be found under the earth in the park helps support the variety of wildlife in the area. This limestone resembles a sponge and holds a large portion of underground water.

Everglades National Park typically experiences only arid and wet seasons. The dry season occurs between the months of December to April, while the wet season is longer, lasting between the months of May and November. The average temperature in the arid season is between 53 °F and 77 °F. Temperatures are typically above 90 °F in the wet season and humidity levels are very high. Rainfall can reach between ten and twelve inches per storm, although smaller amounts occur most often.

During the start of the twentieth century, most national parks were protected for their geological wonders, so Everglades National Park became the first to protect endemic plant and animal species. The ecosystems within the park are varied, with a current number of nine distinct ecosystems recognized today. These habitats include pinelands, marl prairies, freshwater marshes, mangrove and cypress forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, marine estuaries, and lowland coastal habitats.

The most common habitat in Everglades National Park is the freshwater marsh. This type of habitat contains lowland landscapes covered in freshwater that flows nearly one hundred feet per day, although this movement is not visible. The most well known marsh areas are Taylor Slough, Shark River Slough, and the River of Grass, which holds abundant saw grass that can reach six feet in height and broad-leafed vegetation.  The marshes support a variety of wildlife including egrets, herons, brown pelicans, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and alligators.

The tropical hardwood hammock habitats in Everglades National Park are typically the most arid places in the area.  These habitats are located at a higher elevation than marsh habitats and hold a variety of subtropical and tropical plants like southern live oaks, white indigoberry, and saw palmetto. The trees form canopies over dry land and marshland. This habitat supports a variety of wildlife including woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, and the endangered Florida panther.

The coastal lowlands in Everglades National Park contain salt-water marshes that form storms and hurricanes cause flooding. These habitats do not support many species of tree due to harsh conditions, but plants such as saltwort and other succulents can live in the brackish waters. The area supports animal species like Cape Sable sparrows, eastern indigo snakes, rabbits, and mice. The marine and estuary habitats in the park comprise the largest body of water in the area, known as Florida Bay, which stretches from the Florida Keys to the mangrove swamps that occur along the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. This area contains eight hundred miles of marine habitat that supports sea grass, corals, and sponges, which support mollusks and crustaceans. Other animals that rely on this water habitat include barracudas, sharks, and larger species of fish.

Like other ecosystems, the habitats and wildlife of Everglades National Park are sensitive to introduced species. About twenty-six percent of animal species in South Florida are exotic, and many of these grow to be larger and more abundant than in their native habitats due to the absence of factors that limit their growth. Plant species that occur in the area that are not native to the park include the Brazilian pepper and the Old World climbing fern. Insects like bromeliad beetles and fish like the walking catfish can be dangerous to native plants. Although the state government lists many reptile species, like the Burmese python and yellow anaconda, as Reptiles of Concern, the park is still affected by their presence. The park is home to thirty-six endangered animals including the leatherback sea turtle, American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee, although this species has recently been re-listed as threatened.

Everglades National Park receives about one million visitors each year and most visitors enter the park between the months of December to March. Many roads run through the park including the thirty-eight mile road that begins at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and runs through many of the park’s habitats. There are three other visitor centers in the park including Shark Valley Visitor Center and Gulf Coast Visitor Center, which offers visitors access to a canoeing trail that stretches across ninety-nine miles. Other popular activities include hiking, which can be enjoyed on one of the park’s numerous hiking trails. The trails vary in length and difficulty and cross through many habitats in some area, like the trails on Pine Island, which take visitors through pinelands, freshwater marshes, and hardwood hammocks. One of the most popular trails, known as the Anhinga Trail, begins at Royal Palm Visitor Center and extends for a half mile through a saw grass marsh and offers visitors a chance to tour the park on their own. Bus tours are available in some areas of the park, but these require a fee. Other activities include camping, which can be enjoyed throughout the year, although some back country areas require a camping permit. Although low-powered recreational boats are allowed in some areas of the park, high-powered recreational vehicles like jet skis are not permitted in order to protect marine wildlife. The park has been listed as a World Heritage Site, Wetland of International Importance, and an International Biosphere Reserve, sharing these three titles with only two other areas in the world.

Image Caption: South Florida rocklands in the Everglades, Florida. Credit: Miguel.v/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)