By Dr. Robert Knight, the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute
National parks have attained a special status in America. As a conservationist, I understand and appreciate national wildlife refuges, state parks, state and national forests, and other state and federally managed conservation lands and how they help us work toward solving problems like climate change and extinction.
But national parks represent the best-of-the-best of our country’s natural and cultural scenic areas. They are places that tug on our heartstrings, protected and managed not just for sustainability but for future generations to traverse and explore.
Florida is home to 11 national park units, including two national preserves, two national seashores, two national monuments, and two national memorials.
But despite being known around the world as a unique, biodiverse wonderland and travel destination, Florida claims only three national parks – Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas. No Florida national parks are located north of Miami.
Florida is a water wonderland. Nearly surrounded by oceans and receiving an average of 50 inches of rain each year, predevelopment Florida was blessed with an unusual abundance of saltwater and freshwater wetlands. It is not surprising that Florida’s three national parks are focused on water. North Florida is graced with aquatic habitats just as spectacular as South Florida, and yet none of North Florida’s iconic springs, rivers, and lakes are protected in a national park.
Florida is The Land of a Thousand Springs – 1,090 is the current count of Florida’s artesian springs. Many more unrecorded springs exist, primarily north of a line from Orlando to Tampa.
Artesian springs are the natural discharge points for groundwater in the Floridan Aquifer – the porous limestone that underlies all North Florida and adjacent states. Artesian springs are classified by size, with the largest being called “first-magnitude.” North Florida has 33 first-magnitude artesian springs, more than anywhere else in the U.S.
Healthy springs are wondrous aquatic environments. Crystal clear waters transmit sunlight to lush plant communities and result in some of the most productive natural communities in Florida. This productivity translates into abundant and unique wildlife in these natural fishbowls.
North Florida also has mighty rivers. The Apalachicola, St. Johns, and Suwannee rivers are all dependent upon substantial groundwater inflows from springs. All three rivers are dominated by spring inflows and run clear during periods of low rainfall. Of all-natural aquatic habitats in Florida, springs and their spring runs are the most unique and endangered.
Every year, Florida’s priceless collection of springs and rivers face increasing threats to their existence. Large urban and agricultural encroachment means that if we are not careful, we may lose some of these amazing Sunshine State waters for good. As a scientist and springs expert, I believe it is critical to provide comprehensive protection for at least some of these resources so future generations can appreciate and enjoy them.
With the greatest springs and spring-fed rivers in the nation, North Florida is the natural location for a springs and rivers national park. A Great Springs & Rivers National Park in North Florida would encompass multiple springs, their springsheds, and segments of adjoining rivers. National park status would ensure habitat protection and restoration in surrounding lands, resulting in enhanced ecological recovery of this unique natural water feature in perpetuity.
The Florida Springs Institute and its partners are working on a special resource study analyzing how a national park would best protect our state’s springs. We look forward to sharing it with Floridians and decision-makers in Washington as soon as we can, so we can begin important conversations about protecting this resource for all.
The Great Springs & Rivers National Park is a worthy goal. It’s a dream that can inspire today’s Floridians to pass on a better world to future generations and a vision of a climate-resilient, beautifully biodiverse future that’s within our grasp.
More important, it’s another addition to America’s iconic National Park System.
Dr. Robert Knight is founder and director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute located in High Springs, Fla. He has authored four books about Florida’s springs and the challenges they face: “Silenced Springs – Moving from Tragedy to Hope”; “Death By a Thousand Cuts – An Anthology of Springs Opinions”; “Saving Florida’s Springs – A Prescription for Springs Health”; and “The Santa Fe River – An Environmental and Cultural History”. The Institute is a non-profit that provides unbiased springs science and education.
This piece was first published in the Orlando Sentinel, which is part of the Florida Climate Reporting Network. The Invading Sea is the opinion arm of the network.