Everglades Critical: Why A UN-Linked Group Gave Florida's World Heritage Site A Dire Designation

Jan 16, 2018

Everglades National Park is a World Heritage site, and it’s under siege from drought, invasive species and sea-level rise. 

A report released in November 2017 highlighted exactly how threatened the park is. It came from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a group that advises the World Heritage, and it rated Everglades National Park's conservation outlook “critical."

WLRN’s Kate Stein spoke with Peter Shadie, a senior IUCN adviser, about the "critical" designation and why Everglades National Park was originally named a World Heritage site.

SHADIE: The only site in North America that's ranked as critical is the Everglades. It's global. There are 17 properties which were rated as critical in the outlook -- 17 out of 241 [sites the IUCN evaluated]. Many of those are on the African continent and they reflect concerns with conflict, poaching and really serious loss of key species.

The Everglades is critical for two main reasons. One relates to the water “regime,” as I would put it, in the property – the water flows, the quality of that water in terms of pollution, how it's distributed, the timing of water flows and the disruptions that have occurred to them through infrastructure development, roads and urban development. And the second major issue is around invasive alien species. So the sorts of things like the Burmese python, which is probably the best-known example, but there's a whole raft of unwelcome visitors in the ecosystem.

WLRN: Are there any policy implications as far as having UNESCO's “endangered” status and the IUCN “critical” designation?

That's really a decision for the U.S. government to consider. The U.S. government is a party to the World Heritage Convention and the U.S. government have withdrawn their engagement just this year, but they are still party to the convention. It's really their decision in terms of the degree to which they take on board those obligations and translate those to national or state policies.

But countries join the World Heritage Convention for the express purpose of protecting heritage which is of importance for the whole planet. So we see, in most cases, countries striving to meet obligations to do exactly that. And I think you know the demonstration of resources that's been mobilized in the Everglades is a good example of that.

I find it interesting that you say that because we have this Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that’s almost 20 years in, it's several billion dollars in funding. It’s 60-something projects [Ed.’s note: 68 projects] and they’re supposed to be halfway done now. And none of them are complete. Is that something you looked at when you were evaluating the protection and management that's underway here?

Roseate spoonbills in Florida Bay, at the southern end of the Everglades ecosystem.
Credit Mac Stone Photography

I think, quite frankly, the challenge with protection and management has been a combination of the sheer number of these plans and initiatives, which are kind of a little bit overwhelming when you start to look through them; and issue of coordination, you know jurisdictional boundaries, which sometimes work against an overall plan. The World Heritage site is actually only 20 percent of the overall Everglades. It consists of the U.S. National Park Service at the end of the system – almost literally at the end, when you think about water flows. And water quality across the ecosystem is the responsibility of the state. There are all sorts of interests even in water issues, as we know, in terms of rights and access.

So what sort of things are we losing to the various threats?

The Everglades was one of the earlier listings of the World Heritage Convention. The convention came into being in 1972 and the Everglades was added to the list in ‘79. It's listed for these massive subtropical wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems, and it's also listed because of the fact that it’s this vast, nearly flat seabed that was submerged in the last ice age. So it has some really unique gene morphological characteristics. It’s a critical habitat for a number of species, a number of which are endangered or threatened, like the Florida panther, the snail kite, alligator, the manatee. It's also a major corridor for migratory birds.

Apart from the obvious, it’s a massive set of natural lungs for the planet. You know, the functioning of these systems is critical to clean water, recycling air, recycling nutrients, sucking in carbon – all of those things that we know are natural systems have continued to do and are now under pressure and struggling to do.

It’s not an effort to conserve these areas just because they're national treasures and beautiful places to look at. They’re fundamental to the functioning of the planet.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.