With the largest concentration of protected land in the state, South Florida is home to one national preserve and three national parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park.
The common theme among these places is water. Water is in our rivers, lakes, swamps, estuaries, and in the bay. It sustains our ecosystems, and it defines how we relate to our surroundings. To understand the relationship between South Florida residents and our precious protected areas, we must first understand the water cycle that sustains them.
Established in 1974, the Big Cypress National Preserve was the first of its kind in the United States. The preserve collects its water from the rain; rainwater flows through the preserve’s marshes and ambles southwest. The fresh water of the Big Cypress swamp is essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades.
Everglades National Park, the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, receives its water from Big Cypress and Lake Okeechobee. As it flows southward through the park, the water passes through nutrient-rich soil, resulting in some of the purest water that nature can produce.
As this pristine water leaves the Everglades, flowing south and east, it enters Biscayne National Park. Water used to flow into the bay through underwater springs, but today, water enters Biscayne Bay through a series of manmade canals and nourishes the park’s various ecosystems: the mangrove swamp, seagrass beds, limestone keys and offshore reef.
These marine environments provide nursery grounds for juvenile fish, mollusks and crustaceans; the beaches provide nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. The shallow bay and Florida Reef harbor numerous species of fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and corals. However, the canal system that has replaced the springs cannot keep up with the bay’s increasing salinity.
South Florida’s fourth protected area, Dry Tortugas National Park, lies about 70 miles west of Key West. It’s a mere speck on the map—primarily open water with seven small islands. Part of the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve, the park is remarkable for its abundant sea life, plants and animals of unusual scientific interest, undisturbed coral reefs, and a historic oceanfront fortress. Thanks to conservation efforts and the park’s remote location, Dry Tortugas has been for the most part undisturbed by human interference.
South Florida’s ecosystems are unique in the United States, but they are under threat as a result of rapid growth throughout our region. By setting aside adequate space and resources for forests, sanctuaries, preserves and parks, we thereby provide our residents and visitors with open space for recreation and connection with nature.
Land conservation protects air and water quality while benefiting the local economy and preserving natural lands for future generations. As always, conservation is win-win.
Leopoldo Llinas is a forward-thinking father who hopes to educate the young men and woman who will make this world a better place. He holds a PhD in Marine Biology and Fisheries from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. firstname.lastname@example.org