Friday, September 21, 2018

Visitor Experience Enhancement on the Way in Fakahatchee

Stepping Stones


Great and wonderful things are happening in the western Everglades! If you’ve not been to the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, travelled the trails along Jayne’s Scenic Drive or paddled a canoe among the mangrove trees of the East River then get ready. Changes are on the horizon for visitors and events are happening fast!

For many years the Florida Park Service has had their hands full and up to their necks in work to be done in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, that portion on the Everglades just 30 minutes from Marco Island. In addition to their responsibilities to preserve the park conditions and protect the wildlife they have had to oversee a number of commercial vendors that supply public adventures such as swamp walks, kayak and canoe tours, guided hiking trips and narrations of the boardwalk trail. Funding is often limited and man hours are stretched to the max to keep up with all of these needs so a “Call For Business Plans” was initiated last fall.

A meeting of Park Service officials, many commercial vendors and the Department of Environmental Protection asked for ideas and proposals that might maintain organization and control of this beautiful park. Individual businesses offered to step forward and plans were submitted. After a period of review, it made sense that the group selected to manage the provision of all visitor services in Fakahatchee Strand State Park should be the Friends of Fakahatchee, a non-profit, non-compete organization.

It just made sense. The Friends of Fakahatchee (FOF) has helped to preserve the unique ecological and cultural heritage of the Park and educating the public about its importance for 20 years. They donate more than 10,000 volunteer hours annually and contribute substantially to the park’s operating budget. They conduct most of the park’s interpretive programs including educational tram tours and swamp walks.

Photos by Bob McConville | It is common to see alligators along your walk, especially at the gator hole at the end of the boardwalk. It’s hatching season so keep an eye out for little ones along the way!

In addition, they maintain the entire Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, fund research projects, publish a widely read newsletter called the Ghostwriter and they provide a popular website. And now for the best news…

For years there has been talk of expanding the boardwalk. FOF championed this project by funding the development of a Master Interpretive Plan as well as the initial architectural design work and additional survey work. Their group has secured $3.5 million from DEP and the Legislature for completion of the first of two phases of amazing improvements that will surely enhance the visitor experience.

Ground breaking for Phase One is set for December 7 of this year. This first phase is fully funded and will include a large parking area, a state-of-the-art walkway and viewing platform across the canal that will lead to a visitor center that will also double as an interpretive facility emphasizing the history, culture and ecology of the area. Restrooms will be on site as well.

Phase Two, which is not yet funded, will include a new boardwalk that leads to the little known Green Heron Lake and will expand from there to a canopy walk which is wheelchair accessible. This canopy walk will place you right among the treetops for a bird’s eye view of several ecosystems. This new walk will connect to the existing boardwalk and bring you full circle around south Florida’s most unique setting where virgin cypress trees live side-by-side with wild royal palms, where eagles, hawks and owls fly and gators make their home and where some of the most exotic orchids grow wild among the pop ash trees.

There are 175 parks throughout the state of Florida and the Fakahatchee Strand comprises about ten percent of their total mass. The plan for this vital area will increase awareness of the fragile ecosystems that we have here and also provide a “must stop” location for our tourist industry.

The mission of the Friends of Fakahatchee is straight forward. They will provide visitor services that the Park would otherwise be unable to offer. FOF wants to enhance the visitor experience and fulfill fundamental needs such as restrooms and food services. In addition, they will manage all vendor services and act as a liaison between the vendors and the Park. Lastly, and most importantly, FOF will provide a mechanism to regulate access to the Park and protect the resources within it.

The Fakahatchee Strand is such a joy to visit. It is home to black bear, white-tailed deer and the endangered Florida panther. In addition to the eagles, hawks and owls the bird species that grace the area with their presence are all unique but necessary to the fragile ecosystems that comprise the Strand. Some are here year ‘round while many migratory species vacation in the area. Oh yes… it’s hatching season for the gators so keep your eyes to the waterways and banks for some of those prehistoric creatures. Plan your trip to the world’s “Amazon of the North” for a wonderful and educational experience.

For more information about the Friends of Fakahatchee, please go to Orchidswamp.org.

Bob is a Naturalist for a dolphin study team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and a member of Florida SEE (Society for Ethical Ecotourism). Bob loves his wife very much.

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