- Craig Lamb
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MIAMI, Fla. The federal government's massive Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) has been embraced by a contingent of south Florida BASS clubs and members. Sort of.
Over the years, some 200 miles of canals have been carved into the region to control flooding and make the otherwise swampy area more livable. In the process, the canals have created a vibrant sport fishery and recreational playground located on the eastern fringes of the Everglades.
The CERP, however, calls for returning the landscape to its former undisturbed, pristine state. Part of the plan calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to backfill the canals. That's not a good idea, claims South Florida Anglers For Everglades Restoration (S.A.F.E.R.), a group co-founded by Federation member Rick Perrson.
When S.A.F.E.R. was formed four years ago, the agencies in charge of overseeing the restoration of the Everglades discounted the flourishing economic and recreational impacts the area has through sportfishing. Not filling in the canals was not even considered by those looking at options for restoring the historical flow of water in the Everglades. But as S.A.F.E.R. pointed out, the impacted area is indeed a haven for sportsmen and tourists who come by the busload from nearby Miami for a taste of the Everglades.
According to information S.A.F.E.R. obtained from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the canals produce some of the highest catch rates for largemouth bass in the state. More data revealed $1.1 million in economic impacts along a 26-mile stretch of canal slated for backfilling.
To get the word out, S.A.F.E.R. holds an annual benefit bass tournament and has erected attention-grabbing signs at boat ramps: "Canals Temporarily Open. Closing Dates To Be Announced!"
Thanks to the intervention by BASS Conservation Director Noreen Clough, news of S.A.F.E.R.'s campaign traveled from south Florida to Washington, where Interior Secretary Gayle Norton issued a mandate to weigh the recreational side of equation into the plan. As a result, the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District are creating a master recreation plan to study the impacts of Everglades restoration on recreational activities such as fishing, biking, bird-watching, boating, camping, hiking and hunting.
S.A.F.E.R. also wants the CERP modified by removing the levees and leaving the canals open. The levee material could be used to build wildlife islands in the Everglades or, as one S.A.F.E.R. member suggested, a developer might even pay for the opportunity to remove the levees and use them for fill.
S.A.F.E.R.'s motto, "Recreation with Restoration," is finally being heard by the powers that be, although the campaign is far from over, according to Perrson.
"The CERP is a massive undertaking that will take time to fully implement," he said.
"Along the way there will be changes, and we see them as opportunities. We're making headway, but it's an uphill challenge."