Florida Keys News
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Diplomatic Everglades chief set to retire

HOMESTEAD -- During his 10 years running Everglades National Park, Superintendant Dan Kimball has had to take on everything from ecosystem restoration to an invasion of Burmese pythons to a controversial management plan altering boaters' access to Florida Bay.

But next Monday, the popular Kimball will officially trade the Everglades swamps for retirement in the desert of Tucson. He'll be replaced by Shawn Benge, who is transferring to South Florida from the National Park Service's regional office in Atlanta, where he has served as director since 2010.

"Time to turn the reins over to someone else," Kimball, 65, said during an interview last week.

For Everglades National Park, the past decade has been an eventful one. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma planted a double-whammy on the park, destroying the venerable Flamingo Lodge in the process. In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally got to work on a mile-long bridge along the east Tamiami Trail after two decades of delay. The project, which allows for more water to flow south into the parched park, was finished in 2013.

And as Kimball's tenure passed, the Everglades' python problem grew into an international sensation, with photos of especially large pythons taking deer and alligators capturing the public's imagination.

Kimball last week said the groundbreaking on that $81 million Tamiami Trail project was his proudest moment as Everglades superintendant.

"It's not everything we wanted, but it was so symbolic that we could get something done," he said. The state of Florida has since committed to spending $90 million on another 2.6 miles of Tamiami bridging, provided that the federal government matches the investment.

Kimball's tenure also saw the 2007 opening of a 46-square-mile no-take zone in Dry Tortugas National Park, where he also served as superintendant.

Other accomplishments he cited among his most important may surprise some. Kimball singled out the establishment of a pole/troll zone to protect the prized flats of Snake Bight in Florida Bay, near Flamingo. The zone, which has been hailed by many as a boon to fish populations in the bight, has served as a model for the Park Service's plan to close off 100,000 acres of the bay to combustion engine use.

Kimball also said he is proud of opening the old Nike Missile Base, a Cold War relic within park boundaries, for daily wintertime historical tours.

"It's an incredible story and one of our most popular tours," he said.

Other achievements aside, Don Finefrock, who heads the South Florida National Parks Trust, said the outgoing superintendant deserves the most credit for building relationships that have proved helpful to the park.

"Dan has a talent for diplomacy, more making friends and getting things done," Finefrock said.

Indeed, Kimball's ease with people has allowed him to navigate, largely unscathed, a bundle of controversial issues involving stakeholders with very different goals.

Finefrock recalled last fall, when hundreds of people gathered in boats off Islamorada, and just outside the park boundary, to protest the closure of Florida Bay due to the government shutdown. Though they were upset with the leadership in Washington, organizers went out of their way to explain that they didn't hold Kimball and his staff responsible.

"I think that illustrates that Dan has earned the respect and goodwill of people down here who are usually quick to lambast the government," Finefrock said.

Still, Kimball's tenure in the Everglades hasn't been all roses. The massive Everglades restoration plan has moved along at a frustratingly slow pace. Meanwhile, the spread of pythons, which threaten the stability of many native Everglades populations, including marsh rabbits and wading birds, has gone largely unchecked.

"We just really haven't solved it," Kimball acknowledged. "The detection rate is so low."

He said his biggest disappointment has been the lack of progress that his administration has made on rebuilding Flamingo. A year and a half ago the park put out a solicitation for a concessionaire to build and operate new lodging at the old fishing village on the northern edge of Florida Bay, but there were no bidders.

"So here we are 9 ¬½ years on and we don't have any lodging," Kimball said.

As for controversy during the Kimball administration, proposals aimed at protecting the seagrass flats of Florida Bay sometimes put his administration at odds with fishing and business communities in the Upper Keys.

The conflict, which occurred during development of the park's next general management plan, reached its nadir a year ago, when hundreds of business leaders and local fishermen attended public meetings in the Upper Keys to protest a proposal to close down a third of the bay to combustion motor usage.

But late last month, as Kimball's retirement neared, park officials held a private meeting with fishing guides to unveil a new plan that would still designate 100,000 acres of the bay as pole/troll zones, but would also give more consideration to navigational concerns raised by fishing guides.

The guides largely acquiesced to the plan. And, said Islamorada-based guide Ted Benbow, when Kimball announced his intention to retire, he was greeted with a warm round of applause.

"I think as much as he could be, being in that position, he was a friend to the guide community," Benbow said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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