Chances are, you would not pack up and move to a new home without first researching the neighborhood, reviewing your finances, and maybe investigating schools nearby. Similarly, you would not buy the first car you find on a magazine cover without first reviewing the technical specifications, exploring your options, and perhaps taking a test drive. Even when making simple purchases online, you probably shop around, check out customer reviews, and scan seller feedback ratings.
Rarely do we act on impulse alone when faced with decisions. Rather, we typically start with a vision of what we want before gathering the necessary information, weighing our options, prioritizing our values, and evaluating possible tradeoffs. In making choices that range from lighthearted to life-changing, we use this commonsense strategy every day of our lives.
Environmental decision-making is no different. For decades, natural resource managers faced with complicated problems have made decisions by breaking them into smaller components that are easier to approach. And like our day-to day decisions, the process is ideally guided by a shared vision of the future. However, it can become complicated when multiple, seemingly disparate views on what the future should hold emerge. As Lewis Carroll once wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
Divining a vision of the future for the Florida Everglades and making supporting decisions is a complex undertaking. But unlike Alice thrust through the looking glass, we have tools and techniques to help us make sense of it all. The application of tools to help decision-making can move us closer to the successful restoration of this imperiled landscape.
The River of Grass
Recognition of the Florida Everglades as a vast, slow-moving river was popularized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her 1947 book River of Grass.1 Douglas, however, was hardly the first to chronicle the bewildering abundance and diversity of life born of the area’s unique geography and hydrology. Florida’s earliest cultures first recognized—and flourished from—the bounty of the Everglades. Future visitors and residents would come to share this appreciation, and help document the full extent of species, processes, and resources at play on the landscape.
While many valued the Everglades ecosystem in its natural state, others saw greater value in the area’s potential. As early as the 1880s, visionaries, speculators, and politicians sought to reclaim vast swaths of the Everglades for agriculture and development. In fits and spurts—subject to shifting public priorities and economics of the early 1900s—a vast network of canals and levees began to materialize in a bid to tame the River of Grass. The land drained quickly, then farms and communities quickly grew atop the formerly inundated muck of the Everglades.
Only months after Douglas published her timeless tome, two events would set the stage for a prolonged struggle in the Sunshine State. In a bid to protect a large portion of the area for future generations, Congress authorized the protection of 1.3 million acres as Everglades National Park.1 Shortly thereafter, Congress would also authorize the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project—a massive Federal effort to fortify and expand the network of canals, levees, and water control structures crisscrossing the historic Everglades.
Though the new national park would eventually enjoy international recognition as a Wetland of International Importance, a World Heritage Site, and a Man in the Biosphere Reserve, the continued effort to siphon the lifeblood and yoke the resources of the area would prove disastrous. The ensuing decades of water management and habitat conversion brought large-scale nutrient enrichment, the dramatic exodus of birds, several cataclysmic wildfires, a proliferation of harmful invasive species, and the repeated fouling of coastal waters.2 Reflecting this troubled past, Everglades National Park is today recognized as a World Heritage Site in Danger.
In 2000, the Federal government entered into an agreement with the State of Florida to enact a multi-billion dollar, multi-decade Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.3 Though half of the historic Everglades ecosystem has been converted for human use, what remains is critical for the State’s drinking water supply, wildlife, recreation, and tourism. The restoration plan endeavors to replumb the workings of an antiquated water control system to better meet the needs of the natural and built environment.
But restoring the Everglades is not easy. Decades-long disagreements continue about how to restore a vast wetland that has been degraded by a century of human development and drainage. And, some historical processes and patterns we may never be able to reproduce. The Everglades landscape is huge—nearly twice the size of New Jersey. And its size is matched only by its complexity—both ecologically and politically. The many values at play in the Everglades makes decision-making a challenging task.
Consider, for example, the complexity involved just in managing water for the sake of Everglades bird life. Because wading birds have specific needs in water depth to successfully forage and breed, scientists could design an ideal landscape for them that properly accounts for unpredictability in environmental conditions. But many other bird species—like the federally endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and the Everglades Snail Kite—need quite different conditions for foraging and breeding. Thus, tradeoffs exist in managing for birds alone, to say nothing of the myriad conflicts that arise when layering decisions about upland ecosystems, estuaries, invasive species, flood control, recreational access, protection of wilderness, and the provision of drinking water.
Water managers have the ability, within reason and operational constraints, to manage the ecosystem for the best possible outcome. But with a landscape the size and complexity of the Florida Everglades, it can be impossible to try to calculate these tradeoffs without the help of computing power.
Application of New Tools
Fortunately, we have new tools and techniques at our disposal to help us holistically account for the potential implications of management action. The first step, of course, is to articulate our vision for the future so that we know our destination. To that end, the Everglades community has already established objectives for a restored Everglades. However, the missing piece is properly assessing conflicts and exploring possible tradeoffs that can lead us to the best possible outcomes. With advances in computing, we can now take a large landscape like the Everglades and very clearly—and quantitatively—show what tradeoffs exist so that managers can make better informed decisions.
Spatial optimization is a method that can help us reach our objectives for all species, considering any necessary constraints, and provide the best solution across the landscape for a win-win outcome. Even though species we consider might have very different habitat requirements, spatial optimization can help us find the optimal solution across all species.4 When scientists forecast projections of future Everglades environmental conditions, we divide the landscape into tens of thousands of units which are resolute enough to discern critical ecological processes. The result is a vast and multi-faceted Rubik’s cube of sorts that allows us to explore solutions through the manipulation of nearly endless combinations. If all we did was solve for optimal water depth to balance all species needs within operational constraints, for example, a large number of possible configurations across the landscape would result.
Though we can produce forecasts and run the ecological models that arrive at an optimal landscape to balance all of our objectives, we cannot tell the decision makers what they should value most. Spatial optimization again provides us a possible solution, and it allows us to prioritize our objectives. Do decision makers more highly value creating good conditions for endangered species, or do they prioritize creating conditions that could help us eradicate invasive species, such as the Burmese python? What if they don’t prioritize at all? Then they are saying that they care about all things equally and are therefore implicitly prioritizing all things equally. If decision makers are transparent about how they value competing restoration objections and what they want the outcome to be, then this tool can be powerful for achieving restoration objectives.
We are now developing near-term forecasts of water depths in the Everglades, tying in historical conditions and climate forecasts for a view into possible futures. Forecast models for various species of concern and interest have been in use in Everglades restoration planning for some time.5,6 We now have the capability to apply these near-term forecasts to our ecological models. The results will help decision makers visualize how upcoming weather patterns might affect critical species in the Everglades and adjust water operations accordingly. We can now answer questions like what happens when we prioritize Burmese python eradication versus conservation of an endangered species? If we want conditions that limit python movement, then we would manage for drier conditions, but at a possible cost to iconic species like wading birds and alligators. The spatial configuration of the changing landscape could be weighted to provide a balance among different species needs. We could also examine what impacts these options have on boating access or fishing.
So how can we use this information? We can work with decision makers directly and provide them with quantitative information to manage water levels that achieve restoration objectives and spell out consequences to other species or activities from potential actions. Further, we can be specific about targeting conditions for key species in some regions or compartments of the Everglades, rather than uniformly across the landscape.
Our ability to characterize potential futures improves with every passing year, as do the means to evaluate tradeoffs. But the success of Everglades restoration depends upon how these tools are applied in light of the values held dear by stakeholders, adjacent communities, and the world. Just as we make personal decisions every day that shape our own future, we must continue to work together to inform decisions that shape the River of Grass of tomorrow.
Support for SSR, JMB, SMH came from the U.S. Geological Survey Greater Everglades Priority Ecosystem Science program. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
1. Douglas, M.S., (1947) The Everglades: river of grass. Pineapple Press Inc.
2. 16 U.S. Code (1934) § 410
3. Water Resources Development Act (2000) Section 601.
4. Moilanen, A., Wilson, K.A. and Possingham, H., (2009) Spatial conservation prioritization: quantitative methods and computational tools (pp. 1-304). Oxford University Press.
5. DeAngelis, D.L., Gross, L.J., Huston, M.A., Wolff, W.F., Fleming, D.M., Comiskey, E.J. and Sylvester, S.M., (1998) Landscape modeling for Everglades ecosystem restoration. Ecosystems, 1(1), pp.64-75.
6. Romañach, S.S., McKelvy, M., Conzelmann, C. and Suir, K., (2014) A visualization tool to support decision making in environmental and biological planning. Environmental modelling & software, 62, pp.221-229.