When traveling in Miami on U.S. 41, also called Tamiami Trail, 8th Street or "Calle Ocho," as it's affectionately known by the locals, you can easily feel that you're in a never-ending urban landscape. But if you continue west and cross Krome Avenue, you realize that you have arrived in a different, and often underrated, side of Miami.
You are in the untamed wilderness of the Everglades.
Like most kids growing up in Miami, I went on field trips to Everglades National Park. Most of us would listen to park rangers speak passionately about the Everglades and its importance to South Florida. However, as kids we were more interested in the large alligators. Unbeknownst to me, this fascination with the Everglades' gators would one day lead me to roam the same park fulfilling my career goals. Today, I am a ranger for the National Park Service based in the Shark Valley District of Everglades National Park.
While I love coming into work, interacting with American and international visitors and wildlife in the park, I have noticed something is missing during our ranger guided programs. The Everglades is in every South Floridian's backyard but I find it particularly interesting that the locals seldom, if ever, walk into the visitor center to ask questions, take part in our ranger programs, join our bike rides or participate in the many other activities we offer here at Shark Valley.
As a local and a ranger, I wonder why?
While international visitors flock to the park almost daily, many locals only seem to come out on Sundays, hence our staff coining the term "local Sundays." When locals come in, they rent bikes next door at the Shark Valley Tram Tour office or bring their own bikes. From then on, they are on their way to enjoying the 15-mile, paved loop in the park. While there is nothing wrong with that, as our national parks are here for our enjoyment, but we can also take some time to learn their significance.
On the rare occasions that I get to engage with locals, I surprise them with information about the functions of the ecosystem, and I explain essentials about visiting the park. I ask them: Is Shark Valley just a Sunday bike ride, or do they want to learn and embrace the significance of the Everglades to South Florida?
In my contact with local residents during the programs I conduct, I stress how vital the Everglades is to the continued existence of South Florida. I point out how if anything were to happen to the Everglades, we would be in a major crisis.
Unlike the northern portion of Florida, underground springs do not feed water into the Everglades system. An underground reservoir called the Biscayne Aquifer lies about 1,000 feet below the surface of the region.
However, the Everglades have an immense capacity for water storage because of the sponge-like limestone beneath the exposed land. All of our water arrives in the form of rainfall, and a significant amount is stored in the limestone.
Water that evaporates off the coast becomes rain over South Florida during the wet season, but during the dry season, water evaporates from the Everglades and provides the rainfall over Miami Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Collier counties. This then provides the fresh water supply for us here in South Florida. Just to put that in perspective, the population in the Miami metropolitan area is approximately 5 million.
Just think: That 5 million is merely one city in South Florida that is dependent on the Everglades for water. Residents to the north in Fort Lauderdale, west to Naples and south to Key West also depend on this water.
During my talks, I maintain the same drum beat: Everglades National Park belongs to us all. It does not just serve its purpose by providing us with a water supply. It also provides a place to get away from the busy life in the city where we can enjoy wildlife and, of course, get needed exercise in the great outdoors.
As a South Florida native and as a ranger, I know that we need to get local residents involved with their park to protect it. But we also want them to learn about their park.
This is the message I would like to convey not only from a park ranger's perspective here in Everglades National Park but also as a native South Floridian: We need the Everglades, and the Everglades needs us to become its voice so that future generations can continue to enjoy the "River of Grass."
If I can learn something new almost every day working here in Shark Valley, it is guaranteed that visitors will, too. That's the amazing part about the Everglades: It always has something to say. But it speaks to you in whispers, so you must listen carefully.
We can all learn something from the original inhabitants of these lands. The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes call the Everglades "mother." She is mother to us all here in South Florida, and we must do everything we can to protect her from the mistakes of the past.
Come visit us here at Shark Valley and reconnect with your "natural" mother. Perhaps, once that connection with nature is established, it will be easier to comprehend why her presence is so important to our home. She is home.