EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK -- In 2006, the 72-foot "Rebel Yell" ran aground in southwest Florida Bay, damaging precious seagrass on an area called the Arsenic Bank. Four years later, the boat's owner, David Marlow, agreed to pay Everglades National Park a $295,000 settlement for the grounding. But three and a half years later, the site has yet to be restored.
"We are still moving through the administrative process," Carol Mitchell, a natural resource scientist for the park, explained last week. The loss of a key staff position two years ago and the intensive permitting process have been the culprits.
Most Florida Bay seagrass scars aren't as large as the one created by the "Rebel Yell." But a peer-reviewed 2008 study found that at least 8,000 of the bay's 550,000 acres of bay bottom are scarred by propellers. Those scars matter, since seagrass beds serve as nurseries for a diverse collection of species, including lobster, stone crab and yellowtail snapper.
Everglades National Park officials, though, hope that a newly drafted Seagrass Habitat Restoration Management Plan will soon make the restoration process much less onerous.
"It could cut months or literally years of wait," Principal Park Planner Fred Herling said last week.
Funded by the South Florida National Parks Trust, the $70,000 plan was released last week and will be open for public comment until Oct. 4. Park officials hope to review those comments, make changes and finalize the plan by early next year.
Trust Executive Director Don Finefrock said the organization funded the plan's development in order to ease the way for both the Park Service and outside groups to undertake restoration projects. It will do so by establishing an organized protocol for assessing grounding sites and determining whether and how to proceed forward with restoration.
Crucially, once the plan is finalized, all seagrass restoration projects conducted under its auspices will automatically be compliant with the National Environmental Protection Act. That's part of why the plan should significantly reduce the time it takes to get restoration projects started. The NEPA process is intensive. And with staffing at Everglades National Park limited, having too many steps to navigate can make progress seem glacial. The more streamlined process would also apply to nonprofit and volunteer groups that wish to take on Florida Bay seagrass restoration.
"This will kind of cut through all these different compliance problems we have in the park," Herling said.
In addition to establishing a matrix for assessing damaged areas, the draft seagrass plan also designates four priority areas for restoration.
With the Park Service in the process of finalizing its controversial General Management Plan, including a proposal to turn a third of Florida Bay into pole/troll zones, the plan steers clear of further hot-button recommendations.
Instead, all of the proposed priority areas are already off limits to the public. Oddly, however, aerial imagery compiled in 2010 didn't find potential restoration sites in two of those areas: the waters within 300 feet of Duck Key and the Tern Keys, both in the northeast bay. The two other areas, which encompass waters around Porjoe Key in the northeast bay and waters around the Buchanan Keys in the southeast bay, have multiple scar sites.
After the plan is finalized it will be easy to alter targeted areas as needed, according to Herling.
"There will be maximum flexibility," he said.
Everglades National Park has scheduled one public meeting to discuss the seagrass management plan. It will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Founders Park Community Center in Islamorada. To view the plan and make comments online, visit www.nps.gov/ever and follow the links to management and then park planning.