Shhhhh: Nature in Progress

Imagine Biscayne National Park in 2019. Dozens of planes from an airport at the former Homestead Air Force Base rumble overhead each day. On weekends an ever-growing flotilla of fishing boats, Jet Skis, and racing craft whine and roar through the emerald-green water. Festive music blares and partiers shout.

This week South Floridians will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on such a potential cacophony. In what promises to be a contentious meeting, park authorities have called for public comment on the future "soundscape" of the park's more than 180,000 acres, 95 percent of which are underwater. The debate will likely influence plans to manage sound in parks across the nation, Department of Interior officials say.

"If you think about it logically, sound is as much a part of the natural resource and the visitor experience ... as how [the park] looks," says Richard Frost, Biscayne National Park superintendent. The park's soundscape should be managed just like its landscape, he argues.

Frost denies he wants to curb activity, at least in the near future. Rather he only wants to know which sounds (like those from birds, boats, and wind) are important to the land- and seascape.

But he also admits the hearings are meant to affect the debate on the proposed commercial airport near Homestead. By limiting airplane noise in the soundscape, park officials hope to influence a federal environmental study that will determine the aviation facility's fate.

In 1996 the county commission approved a no-bid proposal by an influential group of builders calling themselves the Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI) to construct a commercial airport. Environmentalists complained the planned facility would be dangerously close to Biscayne and Everglades national parks. (It's two and ten miles away, respectively.)

Although construction at first appeared a sure thing, activists in 1997 forced authorities to conduct a supplemental environmental-impact study (SEIS) of HABDI's proposal. That plan will also explore other alternatives for the base. Air force officials will consider the study in deciding whether to deed the former base to the county.

Frost hopes to complete a rough draft of the sound-management plan before federal authorities release the SEIS. (A draft SEIS is expected by late summer.)

Any attempt to manage sound is likely to rile both airport developers and boaters. HABDI representatives point out that planes were flying over the area before the federal government designated it a national monument in 1968. (It was made a full park in 1980.) They dismiss the soundscape hearings as a tactic to halt an airport they believe is necessary for Miami-Dade County's growth.

"Is it Americans' inalienable right to have a quiet nature experience?" questions HABDI spokesman Miguel DeGrandy, a lawyer and former state representative. "Well, then you shouldn't put a national park in an urban environment."

Some boaters fear the plan and the restrictions that could result might limit their access to recreational areas. Fishing guide Adam Redford is wary of any attempt to curtail boat access. Such an effort would anger the very people who care most about the park, he contends. "[The park's] only constituency is boaters," he says. "It could destroy [federal authorities'] support in the local community."

Redford points out that Frost has already angered many in the area by refusing to renew the leases for seven elevated houses in Biscayne Bay. The homes are part of Stiltsville, a community that dates back more than sixty years. Stiltsville homeowners' leases expire July 1. (Although Frost is sympathetic, he says he has no choice but to follow park regulations.)

The superintendent stresses that facilitating boating activity is part of the park's mandate. "We are not going to take an area that is getting a lot of public use and decide that we are going to [stop boaters because they make too much noise]," he says.

When establishing the appropriate sound mix for each area of the park, authorities will have to consider boat noise, especially in heavily trafficked areas. But both Frost and environmentalists believe some activities might have to be controlled. "We are so close to urban Miami and we are getting increased numbers of visitors, so it is clear that the soundscape we have now is going to evolve on its own anyway," Frost says. (The park estimates that a little under 344,000 boaters visit per year.)

During two meetings scheduled for the afternoon and evening of May 13 at the park's Dante Fascell Visitor Center, the public will be invited to speak. Environmentalists welcome the opportunity.

"National parks should not be dumping grounds for airport noise," declares Barbara Lange, a Sierra Club activist.


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