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After Work: Seeing The Everglades Without Wet Feet

…Conservationists gaze out over the sawgrass prairies of Florida’s Everglades, the pessimists wince; so much has been lost. The optimists smile; so much has been saved…

In this brilliant piece of journalism Dona Gibbs muses upon a visit to Florida’s Everglades, one of the Earth’s unique regions, constantly under threat from those who would exploit its resources.

When naturalists look out over the million and a half acres of Florida’s Everglades, they see the habitat of hundreds of endangered species, including rare birds, even the black bear and the elusive Florida panther.

Families enjoy the boardwalks jutting out over the wetlands. They see what Florida used to be –all without getting their feet wet.

Bicyclists peddle down a smooth roadway. They are looking for a leisurely, undemanding 15-mile ride.

The land developers stare across the expanse and see “raw” land.

The oilmen muse about mineral rights. Yes, there is oil in the Everglades.

The mega-agriculture barons gaze and probably still regret that more rich soil couldn’t be “reclaimed.”

The politicians look and wonder, well, what would be politic. As recently as last September, then-Presidential candidate Fred Thompson shocked many by saying he wouldn’t rule out oil drilling. Not politic, as it turned out.

Conservationists gaze out over the sawgrass prairies of Florida’s Everglades, the pessimists wince; so much has been lost. The optimists smile; so much has been saved.

Recently I visited Shark Valley, one of several parts of the Everglades accessible to casual visitors. I climbed the 65-foot observation tower. I could almost see the city of Miami.

I thought about Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, called the Defender of the Everglades. Born in 1890, this colorful, outspoken woman had come to Miami in 1915 after the demise of her marriage. She became a reporter for her father’s paper, which was to become the Miami Herald, and a lifelong champion for the Everglades.

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remotely, never wholly known. Nothing else in the world is like them,” she famously wrote in “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

The book first published in 1947, the same year that the Everglades was named a national park, has been reprinted several times and sold over half a million copies. It delivered the same sort of wake-up call for conservation that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” did and probably will not go out of print as long as this fragile ecosystem remains in danger – which is to say probably never.

A first glance the Everglades looks like a mucky, uninviting, inhospitable morass punctuated here and there by little hummocks of shrubby trees. Mrs. Douglas admitted that even she didn’t actually do much tramping around through the sawgrass. She did enjoy the occasional picnic. Her interest reached further.

Seems I shared this mistaken first impression with plenty others. In the 1840s even as the Everglades was being “explored”, people began clamoring to drain it. Got to be good for something, they reasoned, instead of millions of acres of mosquito breeding.

Back in 1905 Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward ranted, “Drain that abominable, pestilence-ridden swamp.”

And in 1918 an overview of the area “Florida Highways and Byways” noted, “There is undoubtedly agricultural value in the rich deposit of mud at the bottom of the great inland lagoon, and if the water could be withdrawn the region would attract population and be marvelously productive. The reclamation of the Everglades has been a subject of public discussion from almost the time of Florida's acquisition by the United States. The first contract for draining the region was made in 1881, and work continued for several years, but without very important results. In 1906 the task was resumed, and considerable progress has been made in opening canals to the coast. It is estimated that the work now under way will make available one million acres of land particularly adapted to raising sugar-cane, oranges, and garden truck.”

Since that time over half this vital region has been lost to agriculture. If draining half the Everglades wasn’t enough, the damage to it has been compounded. Phosphorous, a major component of fertilizer has leached into the Everglades, threatening the delicate ecological balance.

The Everglades is made up of vast, slow-moving rivers that extend from the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee in the north to the Bay of Florida in the south. With limestone as its bedrock, a thousand feet below the Everglades lies an aquifer that supplies water to millions of Floridians, notably the city of Miami.

The problem is that this aquifer, large as it is, is a finite source and Florida leads the nation in per-capita water consumption. It’s not that we take so many more showers here in South Florida; it’s we use so much irrigation.

There’s a reason why Florida tomatoes are plump, the green bean crops are bountiful, sugar cane fields so dense, golf courses so lush and lawns aren’t brown. It’s water, precious water.

Right now, a lot of South Florida is suffering from a drought and water usage is restricted. Lake Okeechobee, where the Everglades begin, is at dangerously low levels. There’s even talk of purchasing water from other states.

What happens if the fresh water table drops dangerously low? The answer is this: one day we turn on the faucet, fill a glass and take a big gulp of ocean.

Finally the Everglades isn’t just seen a big swamp for airboats rides. The United States Federal Government has promised $10.5 billion over a 30-year period for restoration of the Everglades. And as for the airboats, they’re no longer allowed within the boundaries of the park.

In 2000 the World Heritage site organization removed the Everglades from its endangered list, encouraged that something was going to be done.

The federal government has specified timetables of five-year increments. If certain results and deadlines aren’t met, federal funding is turned off.

Mrs. Douglas, the crusader, would be heartened. Mrs. Douglas, the newspaperwoman, would be cautiously optimist, if not downright skeptical. Politics and money have a way of complicating the best-intentioned plans.

Back at home I sorted through the photos I’d taken and mused about the stories the naturalist had spun –about the snowy egret who was almost hunted to extinction for its wispy tail feathers, the spotting of the rare Florida panther, the alligators now flourishing under protection. On this brief trip we’d been lucky enough to see great blue herons, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons, great egrets, wood stork and even a seldom-seen brown bittern. Birders, eat your heart out.

Then I filled a glass from the water tap and drank it down. Not a drop of ocean. So far, so good.


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