By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar went to the Everglades Tuesday to announce, with the usual fanfare and political backslapping, a ban on the importation of four species of invasive snakes, including the Burmese python.
“Thanks to the work of our scientists, Sen. Bill Nelson, and others, there is a large and growing understanding of the real and immediate threat that the Burmese python and other invasive snakes pose to the Everglades and other ecosystems in the United States,” Salazar said.
Lovers of the Everglades might have preferred something less self-congratulatory, perhaps more along the line of Pope John Paul II’s plea for forgiveness for the past sins of the Catholic Church.
It would be warranted. In the name of making money, the United States has allowed its citizens to dredge and drain the Everglades for real estate, to poison it with fertilizer and corrupt it with invasive species.
The extent of the abuse was so dramatic that it will cost $12 billion to begin its restoration. It’s become such a severe and embarrassing problem that it seems to have actually, and briefly, brought together the administrations of President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Scott.
The first big problem with non-native species in the Everglades began almost as soon as modern American entrepreneurs came in contact with the impressive wetlands. Melaleuca trees were introduced into the Everglades in 1906 by folks who wanted to harvest them as ornamental plants and for paper (the tree is also called the paperbark tea tree). Because they grew so fast and propagated so easily, they were intentionally planted into the sides of levees to stabilize the dirt. In the 1930s, planes actually scattered them from the air to promote their growth in the Everglades. Today it’s illegal “to introduce, multiply, possess, move, or release” melaleucas. But it’s too late. Because 106 years later, we haven’t been able to figure out how to eradicate it.
More recently, as South Florida’s urban population ballooned, invasive snakes such as the Burmese python became the next problem. The snakes, often bought for pets, were subsequently released into the wetlands after a bout of buyer’s remorse — or owner’s laziness.
Lacking natural predators, they’ve taken over. It’s believed that there are now 30,000 pythons in Everglades National Park. And they’re spreading.
“It’s sad that it’s gotten this far — and unfortunately, there is no reason to think that they aren’t going to disperse farther north,” said Kris Serbesoff-King, the Florida invasive species program manager for The Nature Conservancy, one of the groups that has been pushing for the ban.
And yet despite all that history, it still took five years of studies, hearings and debate before Salazar was able to announce a ban. And it will be another 60 days before the ban begins.
So those familiar with the history can be excused for finding Salazar’s announcement lacking.
The first commenter on The Miami Herald story about the announcement expressed it succinctly and eloquently: “You are about thirty years too late.”