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Formal Where? Agreements among South Florida’s Interagency Cooperators

Formal Where?: Agreements among South Florida’s Interagency Cooperators

In south Florida there is a cultural respect for fire, wildfire and otherwise. With national focus on major projects like Everglades Restoration, fire is understood as related to forest resiliency and restoration in the many parks, refuges and preserves in the region. Lands in this fire prone landscape range from cities sung about by Jimmy Buffett such as Key West and Sanibel, to the metropolis of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to the parks & refuges and preserves around these communities –Everglades, Big Cypress, Loxahatchee, Florida Panther, and Ding Darling. The five largest land management agencies here, the U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Service and Florida Forest Service, all manage their land a bit differently, by definition. There is no question however, that cooperating constantly is the only way to restore ecosystems, maintain resilient landscapes and protect the people and infrastructure in this fire dependent area. How these agencies work together to accomplish their goals bears a hallmark of cooperation unique to the state.

“These folks know each other very well. A lot can be done with handshakes,” explains Mike Zupko, Cohesive Strategy Southeast Regional Strategy Committee Chair. With the Strategy’s influence, more formalized agreements necessarily coming into being, but the agencies working in South Florida already have lasting relationships that make informal agreements easy, effective and quick. “In south Florida they’ve been sharing resources to accomplish projects for years. Being familiar with the risks inherent to south Florida and the specialized equipment that is utilized to manage fire there requires that primarily local resources are utilized in all activities. With greatly reduced staffs for each agency this requires that resources move freely across agency boundaries to get work done.” elaborates Jon Wallace, Prescribed Fire Specialist, Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. “Where policies are different between agencies the line officers make sure things run smoothly and by the book.” Under the Cohesive Strategy, with buy-in at the regional and national levels partners will continue to coordinate much as they have been for a long time.

An aerial view of a prescribed burn next to an urban area.
A prescribed burn adjacent to an urban area. Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Two primary agencies in this group, the U.S. Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a model of interaction that would be helpful to extend to the state level. As state and local agencies look to the future one priority is filling positions on collaboratively built teams, combining programs to make the most of the specialized expertise they already have in the area. An example of a program slated for interagency expansion is an existing U.S. Park Service fire effects monitoring group on the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. That team composed of ecologists and biological technicians is a good candidate to become a multi-organization fed group with ongoing responsibility to gather hard data showing how fire helps restore landscapes, as a key part of the Everglades Restoration.

Creating a seamless fire program managing and using fire, and sharing equipment across State and Federal property, is one of the goals for working together, according to Wallace. Collaborating to prioritize prescribed fires across the entire landscape will allow managers to more effectively protect the Wildland Urban Interface area which defines the eastern border of the Everglades along a 90 mile front, containing 8,000,000 people from West Palm Beach all the way south to Homestead. At the same time the landscape scale projects will provide enhanced habitat conditions or protect endangered species such as the Everglades Snail Kite, Florida Panther, and the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, three species which are a high priority for landscape conservation cooperatives.

At the end of the day can we apply the approach of cooperators in South Florida to other areas of the country? Zupko answers affirmatively. “I think we will be able to take this model of learning the lessons and jumping through some hoops to other areas of the Southeast, just at a different scale. On another property with state property around it, for example, doing a prescribed burn, how can we share resources to get it accomplished?” If history can set the precedent, cooperation among Federal and State partners in Florida may illustrate an ease that other States and agencies would want to emulate.

As far as a timeframe for the management changes taking place, Zupko adds, “Due to a lot of oversight on properties within the Everglades ecosystem it’s not a quick or easy process to change the way they manage, operate and do business. Even though they are all thinking the same way, it still takes time to formalize that.” What would be the ideal outcome? “It would be a series of formal and informal agreements as to how the organizations will operate collectively so those properties will address preplanning and initiation of prescription fire and management activities as well as activities that involve suppression. Formalize cost sharing or other funding and contract agreements, but then also have informal things as well. Spell out the expectations, beyond the legal requirements. Understand and respect each others priorities.”

Watch the Everglades’ recent video “River of Fire” talking about burning and some of the issues they face here in south Florida.