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Nancy Smith

Welcome to Python National Park, President Obama

April 21, 2015 - 6:00pm

Whatever the president's political motives for choosing to spend Earth Day in the Florida Everglades, be glad he did. We need him to see more than parched earth on one side of the Tamiami Trail and excess water on the other.

Expect the president to do a lot of talking today about climate change and its effect on Florida. And certainly it's a concern for the Everglades, a delicate ecosystem that sustains all of South Florida.

President Obama said in his weekly address Saturday that the Everglades are particularly vulnerable to the economic aftermath of a changing planet. "Rising sea levels are putting a national treasure -- and an economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry -- at risk," he said.

Because the president cares about our tourism industry, he might want to consider a more immediate threat to our national treasure, one he actually has the power to do something about -- the estimated 100,000 Burmese Pythons within Everglades National Park alone.

The pythons are an exotic species that have flourished in the park, in fact taken over the park. In many ways, it's their park now. As a result, the Everglades is in the throes of its own "silent spring" -- a quiet death we apparently can't hear above the din of political wrangling over Lake Okeechobee water and now climate change.

The big snakes have decimated wildlife in the park. All wildlife. Many of the creatures dying off are threatened and endangered species.

Pythons are devouring virtually everything that moves, including native Florida alligators. This is no exaggeration. Marsh rabbits, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks all have disappeared -- really and truly disappeared, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem.

Over a decade ending in 2009, federal and state agencies spent $100 million on the recovery of wood storks, a staple of the pythons diet.

Here's where President Obama can really and truly help.

Finding and destroying pythons, which have an uncanny knack of "blending" low in the bush, is difficult enough as it is, even for professionals. But inside Everglades National Park it's impossible.

The reason is, you can't just go in a national park and eradicate any species, even a destructive creature like the python. To reverse that would take a change in the rules at the federal level. The National Park System falls under the Department of the Interior.

And the Department of the Interior, under current Secretary Sally Jewell, answers to President Barack Obama.

With little more than a phone call, the president -- who has increased his 2016 federal budget request for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Everglades restoration construction from $74.58 million to $130.92 million -- could effect a rule change that would allow a Burmese python eradication program to begin immediately in Everglades National Park.

In 2013 more than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters from across the country flocked to an Everglades python hunt. But of the 100,000-python population outside the park, they caught a grand total of 68.

Most of the snakes were caught by experienced hunters with permits to regularly hunt pythons on state lands. Florida will repeat the hunt in 2016, this time weeding out the enthusiastic amateurs.

Hopefully, sometime today wildlife officials will make the president fully aware of the park's python problem, and perhaps get his promise to help change park rules so we can go in and -- as we do for other destructive exotics -- kill them.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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