Happy on the Outside

Everglades National Park's sub-surface tsuris

Park surveys find that repeat visitors are rare, and so too are locals. German and French are more often heard along the Royal Palm boardwalk than the two most-used local tongues, English and Spanish.

Sagging attendance has been a factor in the Everglades budget dilemma since Congress six years ago authorized each park to retain 80 percent of gate admissions and concession fees. (The park entrance fee is now $10 per car.) Luring visitors with Indian-style alligator wrestling, or by salting the marshland with rutting moose, is not an option. But according to park spokesman Rick Cook, there are some potential attractions. One is the abandoned Cold War-era Nike missile base not far from the park's headquarters and main visitor center. The National Park Service wants to list it on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately it's not much to contemplate now, however -- some underground bunkers and a few concrete block buildings that once housed nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules missiles, meant for Cuba; now they're honeycombed with wasp nests.

Another possibility are airboat tours, now forbidden in the park. Along the south side of Tamiami Trail (U.S. Route 41), the park's northern boundary, are three commercial swamp buggy businesses that are within the acreage the federal government is buying back as part of the restoration project. One or all of those operations could survive as a park-managed concession, says Cook.

The Glades protect endangered species, like the rare blue heron
Steve Satterwhite
The Glades protect endangered species, like the rare blue heron

Raising money for the park, and persuading locals that there is more to do in the Glades than swat bugs and be solicitous of alligators, is also one of the missions of the South Florida National Parks Trust, created just this year. "We want to integrate the park into the fabric of South Florida life," says Miami attorney T. Neal McAliley, one of fifteen South Floridians named to the trust's board of trustees by the Washington-based National Parks Foundation. Other trustees include chairman Robert Chisholm, a Miami architect; University of Miami law professor Mary Doyle, who served as counselor to the Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration; Miami advertising executive Leslie Pantin, Jr.; and noted environmentalist Nat Reed of Hobe Sound.

The trust does start out with some money in the bank -- $1.9 million, most of it collected in fines from Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines as penalties for polluting nearby waters.

But McAliley, who before entering private practice litigated several environmental cases as a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, says the trust is not going to fork over that money to Finnerty and her staff simply to pay for more rangers, or to conduct pest control. "The purpose of the trust is not to make up for government shortfalls," he explains. "And we don't want to be just another environmental group which gets money and spends it."

Rather, what McAliley wants is to build in the local community an appreciation for the park that will generate both corporate grants and first-time visits. But he acknowledges it's a tough sell.

"[It] is never going to be a resort," grants McAliley, a 37-year-old native Miamian who grew up hiking, canoeing, and camping in the Glades. "There are some hardships involved, and some things you need to learn to enjoy it. I think one of the greatest attributes of the park is the silence, the serenity. Camping in the Everglades, I get a sense of peace and contentment I don't find anywhere else. And as South Florida gets more crowded and crazier, that becomes more important."

In keeping with his family tradition, McAliley will spend New Year's Eve with friends and relatives at Flamingo, not camping this time but staying instead in a no-frills $95-a-night room. He acknowledges the lack of luxury. "There is water there, and it's ... warm," he laughs. "But I don't go there to stay in a hotel room. I go to the park to see nature, and it's there in spades."

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