Swamp and Circumstance

Planners hope the Natural System Model can help restore the Everglades. But will it survive politics?

The airboat zips along channels that weave their way across miles of saw grass. The destination is a tree island in the distance jutting from the water like a desert mirage. Onboard are two groups of scientists intimately involved in an ambitious and costly plan to fix the ailing Everglades.

The hosts for the outing are hydrologists and research scientists for Everglades National Park. They have spent years collecting data on this United Nations-designated world treasure, one of the jewels of the U.S. park system. Mostly they have recorded decline where life once thrived. Now for the first time they may have within their grasp an opportunity to reverse the downward trend. But to succeed they need the help of the men they are ferrying through this landscape of slow-moving water and expansive sky.

The passengers are from the South Florida Water Management District based in West Palm Beach. They pass their days staring at computers, crunching numbers, thinking about the Everglades, but seldom actually seeing it. They are modelers, scientists who design simulations of how the Everglades functions. Their crowning achievement is called the Natural System Model (NSM). Some hope the NSM will help save the Everglades, and it has become one of the most important aspects of a controversial restoration plan projected to cost about eight billion dollars.

As they glide over the water on this day in mid-March, the scientists from the national park point out an endangered wood stork circling above. They show how slight changes in topography influence ecological diversity and the way the water flows. A tree island that began hundreds of years ago as a subtle bump of peat on a limestone bed looms before them. They stop the airboat at a half-submerged stubby clump of bay and dahoon holly trees. The boat can go no further.

To experience the tree island, the modelers must get wet.
Slogging through the mud, brambles, and insects brings them to a level of Everglades detail they rarely experience. Their usual perspective is of a roughly 10,000 square-mile watershed and how it acts over decades. The modeling they do is part of an intensive multimillion-dollar research effort under way to comprehend the Everglades.

The motivation is simple. All agree the Everglades is in peril. All agree more research is needed to understand how the system worked at its optimum, how it has changed, and how much can be salvaged. But few concur on just how to restore it and in what order to satisfy the diverse needs of the watershed, including the human ones. As development encroaches and deadlines near, time is running out for the ecosystem and the planners rushing to save it.

One problem is vision: There is little consensus about what a restored Everglades should or could be. More than 50 percent of the original Everglades that stretched from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay is already lost forever. More has disappeared at the top of the watershed than at the bottom. How should the remaining pieces, sectioned off by canals and levees, fit back together? How much additional land is needed and what will be the ecological benefits of its acquisition? Everyone has a position but no one knows for sure.

On July 1 Congress will receive the Central and Southern Florida Project Comprehensive Review Study, crafted by a multiagency task force for Everglades restoration, even though scientists don't have all the information they need to complete the plan. The irony is that it was national environmental groups that lobbied for the July deadline in 1996 legislation. (Some suspect the haste might have been an effort to help presidential candidate Al Gore.) The answer to the time-and-data dilemma resulted in a "conceptual" plan with more goals than details on how to arrive at solutions. The deliberate vagueness has led to an ongoing battle among different groups to wrest more from the plan for their own needs. Environmentalists fear that in any contest where the interests of the ecosystem are pitted against those of development, nature will lose.

A controversial aspect of the plan centers on what to do with three sections of the Everglades called the Water Conservation Areas, which form the northwest end of Miami-Dade County and much of western Broward. The conservation areas are run by state authorities and do not have as strict environmental protection as the national park to the south. They are particularly prized by hunters and recreational users, many of whom camp on the tree islands. These users have complained that Everglades restoration is geared more toward protecting the national park and supporting a growing urban population, both at the expense of the conservation areas. They claim part of the problem is that policymakers are not interpreting the NSM correctly.

Responding to the loosely defined plan, the federal Government Accounting Office issued a scathing report this past April. "A strategic plan that clearly lays out how the initiative will be accomplished and includes quantifiable goals and performance measures has not yet been developed," the GAO report revealed.

Thrust into the middle of the muddle are the modelers. As decision-makers cast about for a benchmark to determine what constitutes Everglades restoration, many have embraced the Natural System Model.

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