Monday, October 6, 2014

The Ecology of the Everglades

We're on the move again! We've just finished a summer in North Dakota (perhaps more on that later?), and are getting ready to head back to our Environmental Education jobs in the Everglades. Another winter in Florida sounds pretty good, especially since fall was falling in North Dakota just before we left... brrrrrr.

When we decided to take the job in the Everglades, many people oohed and aahed about how nice Florida in the winter would be. Friends told us of great places they've been - typically in the Keys, occasionally in the cities, but few mentioned how cool the Everglades themselves were. Since we were working in North Cascades National Park at the time, we met many “park people,” folks who travel to see parks, people who have generally been to way more parks than I have. Reactions of the park people were mixed, and although some thought the Everglades were cool, many changed the subject by commenting on how gorgeous Stehekin is.

Well, yeah.

One gentleman said he was from Miami, and hated the Everglades, Ugly, he said. Why would you ever go there?

Jeff and I had been to the Everglades before, on a spring break trip while I was in graduate school. We knew that mostly, it looks pretty flat and unimpressive.
Flat, yes. Wet, too.

Depending on the time of year, you might see a different side of the Everglades, though.

Flat and dry.

Sooooo - we knew what people were hinting at. However, we also knew that the subtlety is there, and that there’s magic in the details. One of the biggest things we try to impress upon students when they visit us is how there’s actually a lot of variety in the Everglades. Go out into the swamp and see a cypress dome from the inside - it’s like a cathedral in there.

A little farther down, the water gets brackish, and the mangroves take over - which are a place unlike any other.

Not to mention Florida Bay, of course - but that’s dangerously close to the Keys.

Beautiful, though.

But the Everglades are not all water. Six inches of elevation change makes a perennially dry area, which is why this spot is important enough to be marked:

Don’t laugh. It’s actually an important break between waterways. Actually - go ahead and laugh. But it’s still important.

One of the most important habitats in the Everglades, or at least one of the most endangered, is the Pine Rocklands. Because it is dry, it has been built up into cities. Only 13% of the original Pine Rocklands survives, and 11% of that is in the Everglades National Park. On first glance, they’re kind of scraggly.

But they’re one of the most biologically diverse habitats out there, supporting everything from exotic plants to the endangered Florida panther.

So, if you came to visit our workplace, you might think the National Park Service has gone crazy. First, you might notice this:

Burn, baby burn!

Just before we left the Everglades for the season, the Park Service conducted a prescribed burn on a section of pinelands near our office. One day, lots of plants and greenery (although it was dry enough to be brownery by that time); the next, DEVISTATION.

But the crazy thing is, one week later, the green was coming back!

Florida can be very jungle-like - stuff just won’t die.

Even the trees won’t die:

Turns out, the South Florida Slash Pine is well adapted to fire, having bark that protects the inner wood, and needles that are up high so quick understory fires can’t kill the trees by burning their green bits. The way to keep the fires that go through quick and understory, though, is to regularly burn the pinelands. The official quoted figure is that fires should go through the area every two to seven years. Yowza!

The craziest thing you’ll see near our office, though, is not so much the burn, but the complete destruction by big equipment of large swaths of forest.

No joke - the Park Service is mowing down areas of the forest and scraping every last bit of dirt off the ground.


The backstory: This area, called “Hole in the Donut,” was a strange hold-out when the park was created in 1947. The land was considered too productive of farmland to add to the national park, but everything around it became parkland. The maps back in the day show a hole - the Hole in the Donut - of farmland. Over time, it became less profitable, and was finally sold to the park service in 1975. Now, the area is covered in good, thick topsoil, which is not native to the area - pinelands are characterized by their thin, acidic dirt. Seems great, but the thick topsoil allows non-native plants to take hold and out compete the slash pine and other native plants. Instead of the open, scrubby pinelands, the area is now a tangle of Brazilian Pepper, an invasive species that chokes out everything else.

Pulling out the pepper in Hole-in-the-Donut doesn’t help in the long run, since the seeds will still be hiding in the thick topsoil. The only option that has really worked is scraping off the topsoil and pepper.

After that, the Park Service mostly leaves it alone. They spot-treat pepper if it starts popping up, but the hope is that with time, natural pinelands will return. After all, it’s about the only thing that can survive in the dry, thin-soil environment.

The scraping we saw being done was not the first section to be scraped. Another section was done about a year ago, and already has some native plants gaining a foothold.

It's not gorgeous, but it's a start.

Perhaps, after these scraping projects are complete, the 13% of pinelands will be increased, the panther will have more habitat, and the views on our way to the office will be more natural.

As we prepare for our next season in the Everglades, we're pretty excited about working in such a subtle, fascinating place. We really are lucky to be able to live and work in so many incredible places.

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