KEY LARGO -- The Everglades National Park proposal to close off a third of Florida Bay to combustible motors continued to draw strong opposition at a meeting here last week. But budgetary shortfalls could prove to be a bigger hindrance to any Park Service efforts to transform management of Florida Bay.
"It's going to be challenging with us for our budget to even stand up an education program," Everglades Superintendent Dan Kimball told the crowd of approximately 115 at the Murray E. Nelson Government Cultural Center on April 10.
According to Park Service estimates, the cost of managing Everglades National Park under the preferred General Management Plan alternative put forward in late February would be $22 million annually, up $5 million from the budget that was in effect until the 5.1 percent federal sequester began last month.
The plan, which proposes a broad swath of changes throughout the 1.5 million-acre park, not just in Florida Bay, would also require an increase from 214 staffers to 249, including three extra rangers in Florida Bay.
The sequester is expected to last beyond the end of the September federal fiscal year. And Kimball said Everglades officials have been told to expect another 2 percent cut in the 2014 budget. Combined, those cuts would take the park's budget below $16 million.
Start-up expenses are another issue in the Preferred Alternative. They would amount to an estimated $36 million for the construction of facilities, such as a new visitor center in Everglades City and improvements at the park's Key Largo science center. Another $4 million would be needed for educational outreach, including starting a Florida Bay boater's permit system and additional markers in the bay.
In an interview after last week's meeting, Kimball said that despite the budgetary woes, he doesn't view the continuing general management plan process as an academic exercise. The plan, 10 years in the works, is expected to guide Everglades National Park governance for at least two decades. It is slated to be finalized next year.
"The way I look at it, it makes sense to do a blueprint for a long-term plan," Kimball said.
But he added that everything, from better enforcement to better channel marking to developing the Florida Bay boaters' education program, costs money.
The education program would likely be the park service's first step. Establishing whichever pole/troll zones remain in the plan after it is finalized would come later.
"It's kind of unknown, but I would think that it's going to be a number of years to implement," Kimball said.
The proposed management plan has been roundly panned in the Upper Keys since its release in February. Park Service officials say the proposal to close 131,000 acres of the bay to combustible motors is designed to protect flats and seagrass beds from boat groundings and propeller scars. The pole/troll areas were identified because they are two-feet deep or less.
But local business leaders and fishing guides have united against the proposal, saying it would impact livelihoods and harm the local economy.
At the Nelson Center last week, nearly all of the 22 public speakers were opposed to the proposal. But they may have been at least partially appeased at the meeting's end, when Kimball signaled that a proposal to turn Long Sound, in northeast Florida Bay, into a paddle-only zone is already on the way out.
"I just can't see making that a paddle zone when there's no access," he said, referencing the lack of a boat ramp along the 18-Mile Stretch.
The manager also said the Park Service should do a scientific review of whether trolling motors are more or less harmful to the flats than combustible motors at idle speeds.
Numerous guides and guide organizations have urged the park to consider pole/troll/idle speed zones instead of just pole/troll zones.