On December 8 and 9, 2022, stakeholders from across the National Park Service Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers System gathered at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka, Florida for a riveting two days of meetings, excursions, and idea-sharing. Partners from across the Northeast fled their chilly climates for respite in the beautifully warm and sunny Florida weather.
The Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers System accounts for 16 total designated rivers – mostly across the northeastern United States and one in Florida, just north of Orlando. This bi-annual Partners Gathering occurs every 2 (or so) years, hosted at or near a designated Wild & Scenic River. Despite belonging to the same program and facing similar challenges, the Partners have very little interaction between rivers. The Gatherings aim to support and provide the avenue for networking, problem solving, and bonding between folks, all the while enjoying the scenery of a different Wild & Scenic River. After not meeting in person for over 3 years, attendees welcomed new faces and old friends.
This year, representatives from 14 out of the 16 Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers system and NPS staff congregated at the Wekiva Wild & Scenic River in Florida. The Wekiva is known for its status as what Florida would look like without all the development seen over the last 150+ years – the Real Florida. Tourism at the Wekiva started as early as 1860, focusing on boating and exporting. Currently, the area and state park see about 500,000 visitors annually across 42,000+ acres of protected land. The Wekiva is spring fed – the only one in its extent in the Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers System. There are a variety of imperiled animal and plant species across the protected lands and in the river – one of which being Eel grass. Non-native fish, other animals, and human activity is severely affecting the primary fish habitat. Many of the challenges the Wekiva Stewardship Council is facing in overseeing management on the river are not unique to the Wekiva but are present in almost all Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers, perhaps just a slightly different take.
With only a day and a half together, the days were packed with conversation and resource building. The meetings focused on a range of topics from National Park Service updates, initiatives and opportunities to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice practices to program and partner needs. Most notable, however, was the field trip on Thursday afternoon. Partners and NPS staff shuttled into tandem kayaks to paddle the Wekiva Springs. Along the way, at least 3 baby alligators were spotted, all sunbathing on logs on the shores of the river. Of the less threatening wildlife, waterfowl, including herons, and many different types of turtles were seen napping in the Florida sun. Despite one sinking kayak, everyone made it back soundly. Overall, the 2022 Partners Gathering was a success for continued management and resource protection of the Outstandingly Remarkable Values on Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers across the eastern United States. To learn more about the Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers program, please visit Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers - Wild and Scenic Rivers Program (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov).