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The importance of the Everglades to our biodiversity

Airboats at Everglades National Park

Photo by Getty Images

When some people think of the Everglades, they picture ugly swamps with venomous snakes, hungry alligators and blood-sucking mosquitoes. It’s true—these are all part of the Everglades experience. But despite these unappealing qualities, the Everglades have a lot to offer.

The Everglades system in Florida is the largest wetland ecosystem in North America. It has the largest mangrove sawgrass ecosystem and is considered to be the largest

wilderness area in the Southeast. The water of the Everglades flows about 60 miles wide and 100 miles long. It is home to 16 endangered species of birds, reptiles, mammals and plants. In fact, the region houses the second largest amount of species diversity in America, only after the Smoky Mountains. Thus, the Everglades play an important ecological role for Florida.

The Everglades ecosystem benefits Floridians by regulating our regional climate, cleansing the water and helping to stabilize our subtropical biome. It helps the world combat climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and adding oxygen to our atmosphere. This is indeed an impressive list of accomplishments for a boring swamp.

However, the Everglades face daunting problems. Drought, agriculture and increased demand for drinking water are reducing water levels. There were even efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Everglades Drainage District to drain the Everglades until it was realized that doing so would be an environmental nightmare. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent trying to restore this ecosystem.

Algae growing in Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee, which feeds into the Everglades, has become polluted due to dairy farms, illegal waste dumping and inappropriate practices by sugarcane and rice growers. These harmful practices result in the introduction of heavy metals, organic toxicants and excess levels of nitrates and phosphates into the lake. Pollution results in algal blooms and a dramatic decrease in population levels of many species. The result is a decrease in species diversity, increased risk to human health and declining property values.

As Florida’s population increases, the ecosystem suffers further encroachment. Today the Everglades region is only a small fraction of what it was originally. Humans have taken up much of the land for housing and agriculture. Originally it covered 11,000 square miles, but now it spans only 2,300 miles. The loss of area has destabilized the ecosystem and led to the localized extinction of several species.

Pollution isn’t the only way that we’re causing harm. The purposeful and inadvertent introduction of alien (non-native) species has created a serious threat. Included among a long list of invasive species are melaleuca, old world climbing fern, water hyacinth, hydrilla, Asiatic clam, Nile monitor, wild boar, monk parakeet, Mayan cichlid, sailfin catfish, Burmese python and green iguana. These species, introduced by humans, have no natural controls such as disease and predation. As a result, they can outcompete the native plants and animals. Once they arrive, alien species are incredibly hard to eradicate and they can devastate the natural environment.

There are no easy solutions to fixing the problems with the Everglades. The solutions are complex, controversial and expensive. The Everglades must be protected from further encroachment. Additional land could be purchased and made part of the Everglades. Increased amounts of pollutant-free water must be allowed to flow into this ecosystem. Alien species must be controlled. All of these solutions must be implemented without delay so that the Everglades may be here to provide future generations with the same benefits we enjoy today.

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