Photo: Wind whipping waves past lighthouse

Biscayne National Park's Boca Chita Key lighthouse stands sentinel in a choppy sea, a short distance from Miami, Florida.

Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

Just five miles (eight kilometers) from the heart of downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park is a wild oasis where coral reefs bring the biological diversity of a rain forest to the doorstep of one of America’s largest cities.

Biscayne is the largest marine park in the National Park System. It protects the northern end of the third longest coral reef tract in the world, the longest stretch of mangrove forest on Florida’s east coast, the southern part of Biscayne Bay, and 50 islands of the northern Florida Keys. A long fight to save these islands from development eventually gave birth to the park in 1968.

Unknowing Visitors

Ninety-five percent of Biscayne’s 173,000 acres (70,000 hectares) are covered by water, and most of its half million annual visitors arrive by boat. Many do so without ever realizing they’ve entered a national park.

“We don’t have fences and entrance stations out there, so many people are spending time in the park and don’t even know it,” says park ranger Gary Bremen.

Some of those users engage in activities that would be unthinkable in Yellowstone or Yosemite, including poaching, overfishing, and tearing up fragile shoreline habitats by beaching boats in fragile sawgrass.

Bremen stresses that these impacts can be mitigated, and that education is key.

“In South Florida it’s a challenge to get people to comprehend what it means to be in a national park. Lots of the residents here are new to the United States and from other countries where the use of natural resources occurs on a sort of 'everyone for themselves' basis.

“When people understand what it means to be in a national park, and what it means to use a national park, they have a better understanding of why restrictions exist that protect the fisheries and seagrass beds,” he says.

Climate Change Threat

Bremer adds that Biscayne also faces global challenges: There may be no U.S. park more threatened by climate change. Warming and more acidic oceans are problems for coral reefs worldwide, and sea level rise is a particular concern at Biscayne.

“We’re 95 percent underwater,” Bremen said, “and it’s not going to take much to put everything underwater.”

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