There is no "push" to evict the federal government from running the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. None. No matter what you hear Florida environmentalists say to the contrary.
But the South Florida Water Management District certainly is fed up and trying to hold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) accountable for its failed obligation as lessee and operator of the 144,000-acre refuge, a key component of the northern Everglades.
That's all the District has ever wanted -- to see this treasure cleaned of tenacious, fast-growing exotics. The area truly is a disgrace.
Old World climbing fern (OWCF), Lygodium microphyllum, has been allowed to take over the Refuge's ecosystem. Says Kristina Serbesoff-King, the associate director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Florida chapter, “It grows quickly, spreads easily," slinking its way up, over and around native plants. Eventually the fern completely covers their leaves, blocking sunlight and literally smothering them. Native plant and animal species decline, and the fern takes over.
The contract between the District and FWS has been in force since 1951. It allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the district's land as a wildlife refuge. Part of the federal responsibility is right there in the contract in black and white -- to control the spread of exotic plants such as Melaleuca trees and Old World Climbing Fern, or lygodium.
For years now, the Water Management District Governing Board has pleaded with the federal government to clean the area up, as the lease calls for -- particularly the tree islands. The deadly fern makes tree islands vulnerable to fire, says LeRoy Rodgers, a lead scientist with the SFWMD. The fern’s tendrils act like a bridge, transporting fire from the marsh grasses onto the islands.
Rodgers worries OWCF could thwart billion-dollar restoration efforts to fix the historic flow of water across the state to the Everglades. “Even if we fix the water,” he says “it’s not going to be the Everglades anymore if we don’t remove plants like Melaleuca and climbing fern.”
This has long been the conversation between FWS and the District. Not kicking the feds out. Not ripping up the lease. Just cleaning the place up.
Nevertheless, a group of environmentalists met near West Palm Beach Monday night, making sure they had the ear of a friendly press, to falsely claim the Water Management District wants to cancel the lease and let the Everglades' enemies have their wicked way. Certainly, that's how it came across.
"A small group of men who are out of step ... have made a decision to cancel the lease," noted environmentalist and former District Governing Board member Nathaniel Reed of Jupiter Island told the group. "If it goes under state control, there's no guarantee that (water pollution standards) will be maintained."
Thus, the real reason for the environmentalists' meeting: to hoist a red flag, taking another opportunity to blame the dilemma -- you probably guessed it -- on Big Sugar, their bogeyman. Losing federal oversight "could result in the state easing Everglades water pollution cleanup requirements, which could benefit the sugar industry," the environmentalists said.
Huh? You really think the District is going to reduce Everglades cleanup requirements? After all the Everglades Agricultural Area has accomplished in pollution cleanup? And you really think the District's goal after 50 years is getting the Refuge back? Come on, now.
This is a scare tactic. A classic environmental activists' pivot -- taking something as plain as the nose on your face, then disguising it by turning it into their cause celebre.
The feds were supposed to complete the exotics removal at the refuge by 2017. When they knew in August it wasn't going to happen, realizing they were about to fall into default, FWC and its environmental support team came before the Governing Board. Audubon Florida asked the Governing Board on FWS' behalf to raise taxes so district taxpayers could pick up the cleanup tab.
You heard right.
The feds didn't do their part to manage a treasure in their care. So taxpayers in the district should cough up the money for U.S. Fish and Wildlife's failure to eradicate the exotics? Yes, argues Audubon.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said the District has more resources than the federal government for invasive plant control. "... You have the resources,'' Draper told the Governing Board Aug. 11. . "And it is your land. Fund it." Have a look at his presentation here.
The District's budget for the current fiscal year is $749.6 million; the federal government is projected to spend $3.9 trillion this fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. How does Audubon Florida figure the District has deeper pockets than Uncle Sam, the guy who can find an excuse to print money for everything else.
Over the years the District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have repeatedly stepped in to invest millions toward invasive plant treatment in the Refuge. Still, FWS has yet to ask Congress for funding to fix an urgent problem that is the federal agency's responsibility under this 50-year agreement.
On Nov. 16, 2015, SFWMD Executive Director Pete Antonacci fired a warning shot that the District is close to declaring the FWS in default. There was never any mention of ending the lease. None.
In the letter to Dan Ashe, director of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Antonacci wrote, "I regret to report that the exotic infestation is not improving at the Refuge despite decades of management efforts. The continued expansion of these two species (Old World Climbing Fern and Melaleuca) will lead to the irreversible collapse of hundreds of tree islands, which are critical in Everglades Restoration, and the degradation of wading bird foraging habitat. These impacts could be far greater than those attributable to water quality concerns in the Refuge that are successfully being addressed. ..."
The refuge's 2016 base budget for exotics management in the Refuge was $1.64 million. The Refuge's increases combined with $2 million that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) committed, provided $3.64 million. This amount still fell short of the generally accepted need of $5 million for five years followed by $3 million annually thereafter for maintenance control.
It's clear Reed and the activists who attended Monday night's meeting only want to distract from U.S. Fish & Wildlife's poor stewardship -- in fact, the utter failure to live up to FWS's environmental commitments -- using the issue to scare people about the big, bad sugar industry.
Perhaps with a new administration, the FWS will elevate Loxahatchee management funding on its priority list. In the meantime, follow the FWS-SFWMD conversation, not the environmentalists' spin.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith