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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Funding Shortfall Looms For Palm Beach County's 34 Designated Natural Areas

Kate Stein
Scrubs are typically dry land with sandy soil and low shrubs, interspersed with trees like the sand pine. But the Yamato Scrub Natural Area in Boca Raton contains several different ecosystem types, including this marsh.

Palm Beach County's prized natural areas -- protected areas of dunes, wetlands, scrub and flatwood forests -- could lose money for maintenance in the next few years because of changes to funding sources.

That's prompting a push for money for the 34 designated sites, which were purchased with taxpayer dollars and are popular destinations for hikers, bikers, fishermen, kayakers and wildlife photographers.

"We'll regret it if they fall into disrepair," said Scott Zucker of Audubon Everglades, which along with the Loxahatchee chapter of the Sierra Club has begun a campaign for funding. "As green spaces, they serve to recharge our aquifers, so they're an important source for water. Much of these areas are wetlands, and wetlands are important in terms of reducing the force of hurricanes."

It costs the county about $6 million per year to maintain the approximately 31,000 acres of natural areas. In years past, Palm Beach County has paid using interest from an endowment and the fees developers pay in order to build extra homes on their land.

But after the county shifted the endowment to an investment vehicle that pays less interest, and after officials cut the amount developers are required to pay, the natural areas face a $3.5 million annual shortfall and could run out of funding by 2019, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
A prickly pear cactus in Yamato Scrub Natural Area in Boca Raton.

There are various options for how the county could make up the deficit, including using proceeds from a tax on hotel and motel stays. Zucker says the environmental groups are trying to raise awareness and generate public support for natural areas with cards that will be delivered to Palm Beach commissioners in March.

"We are hoping to present them with somewhere between 800 and 1,000 cards signed by members of the community encouraging them to be generous," he said. "It's basically an ‘I love the natural area’ campaign."

Zucker says there's not currently a way to sign one of the cards online, but volunteers are taking the cards to their neighborhoods and churches, as well as festivals and meetings of outdoor groups like the Sierra Club.

An annual festival celebrating the natural areas is scheduled for Saturday, March 10, from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Winding Waters Natural Area, 6161 Haverhill Rd. in West Palm Beach. Organizers say the event will include a 5K trail race (registration required), hands-on exhibits, wildlife presentations, a kids zone, guided hikes and kayak tours, prescribed fire demonstration, food trucks and more.

The county also has a number of other smaller events showcasing the natural areas scheduled throughout March. You can find more information here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/PBCERM/events/

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