Florida Everglades Is Now Most Critically Endangered Site in U.S.

Ever since white people moved to Florida, the Everglades has been under almost relentless assault. After being drained and developed, polluted with fertilizers, and overrun by invasive species, it's no secret that today the vast wetland is on life support.

A recently released report, however, underscores the severity of the situation. The Everglades' conservation outlook is "critical," according to a study out this month from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with climate change, altered water flow, and invasive species taking a major toll on an already-damaged environment.

Of 241 natural wonders assessed around the globe, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Smoky Mountains, only 17 — or 7 percent — were rated critical. The Glades was the only natural gem in the United States to earn that dire designation.

"Current threats related to reduced water flows, water pollution, and shifting habitat are affecting the health of the site and the amount and quality of habitat," writes IUCN, a Switzerland-based nonprofit dedicated to environmental awareness. "Some of these losses cannot be restored, as habitat features have taken decades to centuries to develop. Potential threats, including hurricanes, climate change, and ocean acidification to the site are a high threat overall and are potentially being realized already."

Among the worst threats to the Everglades are the changed water flow caused by the system of dams and canals built to divert water away from sugar farms and new developments. Those unnatural waterways have resulted in a loss of landscape patterns and changes in habitat. Invasive species such as the Burmese python and black and white Argentine tegu have also irreversibly changed the area and are a problem that "cannot be erased, only managed," the group writes.

Also a significant hazard: climate-change-fueled sea-level rise, which has caused changes in wading-bird feeding locations and saltwater intrusion into areas that were previously freshwater. 

The report shows climate change is the leading cause of damage to the world's most treasured natural areas. The phenomenon has affected a quarter of all sites, with impacts including coral bleaching and glacier loss. The researchers warn it will likely become only more destructive.

"Climate change acts fast," IUCN Director General Inger Andersen said in a release, "and is not sparing the finest treasures of our planet."

Damage to the Everglades has profound impacts. The wetland is home to about 20 species that are either threatened or endangered, including the Florida panther, green sea turtle, and American crocodile; a sanctuary for hundreds of species of birds; and a natural water storage system and buffer against hurricanes.

It is, as the report notes, like no place else in the world.

It's difficult to imagine the problem being addressed under Donald Trump's administration. Though his interior secretary has claimed the president will still support restoration efforts, Trump has already proposed deep cuts to programs that monitor pollution in the ecosystem and will travel out West next week to turn millions of acres of protected environment over to private development.
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas