Tom Nordlie (352) 392-0400
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — University of Florida experts will join hundreds of colleagues from academia, government and private enterprise in Lake Buena Vista next week for one of the largest-ever conferences devoted to restoration of the Florida Everglades.
The 2006 conference on Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration, or GEER, takes place June 5-9 at the Buena Vista Palace. About 500 participants will present research, attend workshops and take part in panel discussions on topics ranging from water quality, land use and wildlife populations to soil science, computer modeling and control of invasive plants.
The third such conference since 2000, its theme is “Planning, Policy and Science,” emphasizing the need for cooperation among all groups engaged in Everglades restoration, said conference chairman G. Ronnie Best, coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Greater Everglades Science Initiative and a courtesy professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS.
“We’ve come to realize sustainable ecosystem restoration – whether it’s for the Everglades or coastal Louisiana or any other large system – has three principal components,” Best said. “They are planning, policy and science.”
To succeed, restoration programs must integrate all three components, he said. But the personnel representing each part – planners, policy-makers and scientists – may not fully understand the role of the other two.
“The primary benefit of the GEER conference is face-to-face communication between hundreds of restoration practitioners at all levels, and the compilation of abstracts produced as a result of the conference provides a long-term reference tool in restoring the Everglades,” Best said.
For university faculty members, another appealing aspect of the conference is that it gives them the opportunity to learn about the full scope of restoration research, said Frank Mazzotti, an associate professor at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center and a member of the conference program committee.
“Usually, researchers are aware of their own work and what people in their field are doing,” he said. “But when you attend a conference like this, you get a sense of the scope of what everyone is doing.”
Mazzotti, a wildlife expert, co-authored 15 abstracts being presented. He will also give a talk on The Burmese Python Partnership Project, a pilot program to reduce the number of invasive pythons living and breeding in the Everglades by tagging captured specimens with radio transmitters and temporarily returning them to the wild.
By learning about the snakes’ habits, scientists hope to pinpoint areas where they congregate, Mazzotti said. Preliminary efforts have led to the capture of 12 untagged pythons and demonstrated that tagged snakes can be reliably tracked and recaptured.
This illustrates just how wide-ranging Everglades restoration issues can be, and discussing new ways of addressing these issues is a major feature of Everglades restoration efforts, Best said.
Innovation is needed because some changes affecting the Everglades cannot be undone, he said. Today, South Florida’s wetlands cover about half the area they did a century ago, before land was drained and Lake Okeechobee dammed to reduce the flow of water from its southern rim, which once kept much of South Florida submerged for part of the year.
Restoration efforts seek to reverse negative impacts of development and drainage, Best said. Early attempts at restoration kicked off in the 1980s, but the effort began in earnest in 2000, after President Bill Clinton signed into law the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, a 36-year, $7.8 billion program that focuses primarily on restoring a more natural flow of water through South Florida.
Though the CERP program has only been in place for six years – less than 20 percent of the projected time needed – Best says there is cause for optimism.
“I think the state is moving very aggressively under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush to honor its obligation,” he said. “We’re moving along, and the fact that so many state and federal agencies are cooperating really underscores the importance of the project.”
Dennis Duke, restoration program division chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in Jacksonville, agrees that progress has already been made. He cited Florida’s Acceler8 program, established in 2004, as a key example of the state’s willingness to move forward. The program will provide $1.8 billion in bond financing for design and construction of eight key restoration projects expected to be completed by 2010.
“This is a landmark year for Everglades restoration,” Duke said. “We’ve been working closely with the state and are very excited about the Acceler8 programs, which jump-start the effort. The corps, in partnership with the state, is making great strides in constructing the Kissimmee River Restoration Project and other projects while developing detailed plans for the overall restoration effort.”
Best praised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its efforts to promote Everglades restoration at the federal level. He said credit is also due to many academic, governmental and private-sector entities supporting the conference, including the South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. National Park Service.
“The Everglades is a resource that certainly is valuable to the state, but the Everglades belong to America as well,” he said. “It’s a unique system and a national treasure, and we intend for this conference to not only help participants advance their work, but also to raise public awareness of restoration efforts.”
Many Floridians may not appreciate the broader importance of the Everglades to South Florida, said Terrence “Rock” Salt, director of Everglades restoration initiatives for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He is also the conference’s keynote speaker.
Aside from providing natural beauty and wildlife habitat, the Everglades are crucial to maintaining one of South Florida’s most precious resources – water, he said. The vast wetlands are integral to flood control, water quality enhancement and long-term recharge of ground water. With the state’s ever-growing population, these factors become more important each day, and the Everglades is placed at greater risk.
“The current water management system harms the Everglades, yet still can’t provide for the people,” Salt said. “We’re developing an improved water management system to store more water so that when there’s a lot of water we’re not flooding the Everglades or people, and in the dry months we can distribute more water to meet both needs.
“It’s really that simple,” he said.
For further information, visit the conference Web site at http://conference.ifas.ufl.edu/GEER2006/.