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President Obama To Visit Everglades National Park On Earth Day
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President Obama To Visit Everglades National Park On Earth Day

Environment

President Obama To Visit Everglades National Park On Earth Day

President Obama To Visit Everglades National Park On Earth Day
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President Obama will honor Earth Day Wednesday by visiting the Florida Everglades, an area greatly affected by climate change. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Florida International University ecologist Evelyn Gaiser about what damage has already been done to the region.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tomorrow is Earth Day, marked on April 22 since 1970. And President Obama will spend part of Earth Day in Everglades National Park talking about the threat of climate change. He gave a preview in his weekly address on Saturday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Everglades is one of the most special places in our country, but it's also one of the most fragile. Rising sea levels are putting a national treasure and an economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry at risk.

BLOCK: Ecologist Evelyn Gaiser will be with the president in the Everglades. She leads the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program, and they asked her what she wants the president to see tomorrow.

EVELYN GAISER: It would be great if President Obama could see the interaction between the coastal, marine communities with the freshwater marsh and the ways in which that boundary is changing. We have mangrove trees that fringe the margins of South Florida, and what we're seeing is those trees are able to withstand the salinities that the saltwater brings from underground and above land, and they very easily invade that freshwater marsh, and that's where we see climate change most evidently playing out on our landscape.

BLOCK: So does that mean you're seeing mangrove trees now in places inland where you would never have seen them before?

GAISER: That's exactly right.

BLOCK: And along with preserving biodiversity, preserving wild space and habitat, of course also you're seeing a real threat to drinking water with what's going on in the Everglades, right?

GAISER: That's exactly right. So the people of Florida depend on that aquifer underneath the Everglades for their drinking water. And as we have insufficient freshwater moving into the Everglades, we see a depletion in the freshwater resources available to the growing population of South Florida.

BLOCK: You know, I think if you think long-term about the Everglades, you think not just about climate change but about the degradation from population growth and rampant development in South Florida, draining and dredging the wetlands - things like that. Which is a bigger threat, do you think - that development or what you're seeing now with climate change?

GAISER: Well, it's a combination of both at this point because our science is really telling us that the ways in which we've changed this ecosystem over the last hundred years have had a massive impact on its function and on the way that it operates. But now we're seeing this acceleration of change that is really putting us in a place where there's more of an immediacy for Everglades restoration. So there's a real need for thinking very differently about the pace of restoration and about our ability to transform this ecosystem into something that becomes more resilient to these climate changes.

BLOCK: And how would you do that? How would you try to fix that?

GAISER: Well, the Everglades Restoration Plan would move more freshwater into the Everglades and restore the flow of water, restore the timing of the flow of water into the interior of the system. It's important to make sure we have a storage capacity for water to be biologically cleaned of nutrients so that the interior of the system receives the kind of water that will sustain the resources to the interior of the Everglades marsh.

BLOCK: And is it mostly money that's holding up that plan from being put into effect?

GAISER: I believe it is. That's often the case with the conflicts around Everglades restoration - is that it is costly and that there are other uses for those funds. But we don't think there's a use that's more immediate than this one.

BLOCK: Well, Evelyn Gaiser, thank you so much for talking with us.

GAISER: Thank you so much for your time.

BLOCK: Evelyn Gaiser is an ecologist with Florida International University. She's been studying the Everglades for nearly two decades, and she'll be with President Obama tomorrow for his Earth Day visit to Everglades National Park.

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