Biscayne National Park's proximity to a dense population center like downtown Miami is part of its problem. The nation's largest marine park, this aquatic oasis protects the northern part of the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world — as well as some of the only living coral in the continental United States.
"Only about 6 percent of Biscayne’s corals are still alive, and some fish populations are on the verge of collapse," says Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "There are a number of different factors: overfishing; an increased number of people using the park; water-quality problems from pollution and development; issues with climate change — ocean acidification and warming waters, which lead to coral bleaching; problems with marine debris; impacts from boating. All of these factors together have led to the severe decline of the coral reef ecosystem."
The National Park Service (NPS) is trying to help the park by creating an onsite marine reserve that would protect the living coral. A plan for the reserve was already approved last year after more than a dozen public hearings and 43,000-plus comments — 90 percent of which favored the reserve. The "no-take" zone would constitute only 6 percent of the park's waters, and people would still be able to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, and enjoy the area — just no fishing or making off with any marine resources.
Unsurprisingly, some Florida politicians are on the defensive. Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson introduced the Access to Sportfishing Act of 2016, legislation that McLaughlin says would derail the reserve so fishermen could continue to have free rein over the area. Then there's the Conserving Our Reefs and Livelihoods (CORAL) Act, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo. "It does contain a lot of important protections, but it also contains damaging language for Biscayne National Park," McLaughlin says. "The impact of some of these pieces of legislation would be to prevent the NPS from upholding their legal duty to protect and conserve our national parks."
As of now, the reserve plan has been approved and no legislation has been signed into law, so there's still time for Floridians to show their support for the park. "Call your representatives and senator, and tell them that Biscayne National Park is important to you and that a marine reserve is one of the best ways to reverse the damage we’ve seen over the past decades," McLaughlin advises.
4. Miami Marine Stadium
This one-of-a-kind waterfront stadium has been sitting stagnant for decades. And despite robust attempts to raise funds for refurbishment — championed by Miami's most famous sound machine, Gloria Estefan — renovation has yet to happen.
"It has sat empty since 1992, and we've been working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) over the past several years to get the city to move on it," the Dade Heritage Trust's Rupp says. "That site is a local landmark and very iconic. There’s no other marine stadium anywhere in the world — that's been verified."
The NTHP — in cooperation with Heineken USA — has an IndieGoGo campaign running to raise funds for restoration.
And though the stadium isn't in immediate danger of being torn down, neglect is a very real threat, Rupp adds. "As things sit and are abandoned, they tend to fall apart."
3. Biscayne Bay and the Biscayne Aquifer
Biscayne Bay may look pristine, but that doesn't mean it'll stay that way. That beautiful blue water faces a lot of threats. First and foremost is water pollution.
"That includes sewage spills; industrial runoff; fertilizers from lawns, golf courses, and agriculture; potential contamination coming from Turkey Point [a nuclear plant owned by Florida Power & Light]; as well as a reduction in freshwater flow from the bay," says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.
And for the aquifer that provides Miami's drinking water, the stakes are even higher. Biscayne Aquifer spans almost 4,000 square miles from Dade to Broward and into the southeastern part of Palm Beach County. "A lot of people don't think about where our water comes from," Silverstein says. "Turkey Point is putting an almost incomprehensible amount of salt into the aquifers every day."
The issue is the power plant's antiquated cooling canals. Because Florida has porous limestone, pollutants from the canals sink easily into the groundwater. Studies suggest 600,000 pounds of salt and other contaminants travel from the canals into the aquifer every day. The county is pushing for FPL to retire the canals and install cooling towers, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection signed an order that requires the corporation to fix the problems in the next decade. But ten years is a long time. In July, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the Tropical Audubon Society filed suit against FPL, citing the Clean Water Act.
"It isn’t currently impacting the water we’re drinking right now, but is impacting our water supply for the future," Silverstein adds. "If it isn't fixed, we'll have a huge problem."
2. Richmond Pine Rocklands
What's a pine rockland, you ask? It's a type of ecosystem that's perilously close to extinction, and Miami is one of the few places where it still exists. Dominated by the South Florida slash pine, limestone rock outcroppings, and a thick layer of shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, the pine rocklands once covered 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County. But today, less than 2 percent is left outside of the Everglades, owing mainly to development.
Now one developer wants to put a Walmart-anchored shopping center on part of the remaining rocklands. The Richmond pine rockland tract, alongside Zoo Miami, is the largest privately owned piece of this land left. The University of Miami sold 88 acres of it to RAM Realty Services in 2014, outraging many conservation groups, and not for the first time. In previous years, UM used the land for research, and the school was actually sued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006 for releasing hazardous waste into the ground.
"Since we only have about 2 percent of what we used to have, what's left is really special, the last of the last," explains Jacki Lopez, Florida director and staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups working to protect the pine rocklands, along with the Tropical Audubon Society, the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, and the Everglades Law Center, among others. "It's home to species like the Miami tiger beetle [one of the fastest insects on Earth], the Florida bonneted bat, several butterflies, and a species of snake that you don't find anywhere else. Once it's gone, it's gone — that's why it's so important to keep it intact."
As things stand now, RAM has submitted a habitat-conservation plan to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and at some point it'll be available for public consumption and comment, Lopez says. There will probably also be a public hearing, so passionate folks can voice their opinions. A Save the Pine Rocklands website offers plenty of info and action steps.
1. The Everglades
For many Miamians, the Everglades is an afterthought. While parts of it reside in Miami-Dade County, it can seem much farther removed, a far-flung river of grass populated by pythons and mangroves and alligators. But the 2 million-acre ecosystem is crucial. It's the originating source of drinking water for 8 million Floridians, and the threat of its loss is very real.
"It was the first national park designated because of its biodiversity — it's this one-of-a-kind biodiverse ecosystem," explains Dawn Shirreffs, senior Everglades policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation. "And for most of us, it's what protects our way of life. We have a tourism-based economy. If you're a developer, you're even relying on the Everglades because you can't get a development permit unless you can get a water supply source for your building."
When Florida was developed in the early part of the 20th Century, water flow to the Everglades was interrupted all over the place. Since then, the Everglades hasn't had enough water to sustain itself, while other parts of Florida have had way too much. To get the water flowing the way it's supposed to — south and into the Everglades — there's a plan in place: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, passed in 2000.
Some pieces of the plan have come to fruition, but there's one large chunk that's missing: water storage. Officials need a place to store and treat water before sending it back through the Everglades, the way nature intended. Without said storage, Shirreffs says, polluted water continues to be released, causing serious problems, such as this summer's toxic algae blooms in St. Lucie and Martin Counties.
"The biggest threat becomes delay. The longer it takes for us to implement that plan, the Everglades continues to die while it waits," Shirreffs says.
The good news is, there's progress. "Florida State Senate President Designate Joe Negron just announced his plan to get storage south of Lake Okeechobee so we can really address this problem," Shirreffs says. "This is the health and livelihood of our lifestyle in South Florida. We’re not doing it for the endangered species alone — it’s really a matter of self-interest."