Florida’s Everglades—A Frantic Call From the Wild
NEARLY a million visitors flock to this amazing tropical paradise each year to behold the marvelous wonders of the Grand Creator’s handiwork. Here, there are no mile-deep canyons or sky-high palisades to stand in awe of, no mighty waterfalls to snap pictures of, no wandering moose or ambling grizzlies to admire from a safe distance. Instead, Everglades National Park is the first national park in the world established for its biological bounty rather than breathtaking scenery.
Part grassland, part tropical swamp, it has been called a “river of grass.” Life for its denizens is played out as it has been for centuries. Ten-foot-long alligators bask in the sun and the steamy heat, keeping an eye open for their next big catch. At night the swamp resounds with their roars and the ground trembles as they act out their mating rituals. Washtub-size turtles plow through the grass in search of food. Darting, playful river otters share the same habitat. Fresh tracks of Florida panthers on the prowl can be seen in the soft mud. White-tailed deer need to keep ever on the alert, for these stalkers will at every opportunity dine on them. Raccoon, often pictured washing their food in nearby streams, are at home in the Everglades, with a bounty of food straight from the Glades’ menu.
There is also life in abundance that is almost unseen by visitors to the Everglades. Frogs of many varieties sit camouflaged on leaves above ground, on lily pads, and on beautiful water hyacinths in man-made canals. Crawling at truly a snail’s pace among the aquatic plants are the apple snails—golf-ball-size mollusks, equipped with gills and a simple-type lung, which enables them to breathe both under the water and out of the water. The shallow waters are alive with crayfish, crabs, and fish of many kinds. There are snakes galore and insects and creeping things aplenty—all waiting to eat or be eaten.
Among the feathered creatures to be seen are the beautiful roseate spoonbills, white ibis, and snowy egrets that circle overhead while their mates may forsake the skies to warm the eggs containing their expected young. The sight of the exotic great blue herons overhead, flying too fast to be counted, will long be remembered. Sea gulls, pelicans, and purple gallinules share airspace with the majestic bald eagle, America’s national symbol.
Then there are the long-necked cormorant and the anhinga, or snakebird, so-called because it looks more like a reptile than a bird when it sticks its long S-shaped neck above the water. Both types of birds, ravenous by nature, vie for food in the shallow waters of the Everglades. When they are wet, both spread their wings and expand their tail feathers, creating a flamboyant display as though posing for a picture. Only when their feathers are completely dry can the birds take to flight.
So as not to be overlooked, the cranelike limpkin will startle visitors with its yelling cries. This big, brown-and-white speckled bird has been called the crying bird because it sounds like a grief-stricken human wailing in despair. The rare and endangered Everglades kite, a crow-size bird of prey—whose very survival depends on the availability of the apple snail—is a memorable sight for bird watchers. Gazing upward, visitors will marvel at the huge assembly of birds roosting in the majestic live oaks that are laden with glossy green leaves and tinseled with strands of Spanish moss. Blending in with the colors of the birds are green and red blossoms hanging from delicate vines surrounding the trees. Here, the visitors may forget which country they are in and which continent they are on. Ah, here is a world of its own, a virtual paradise, primitive and beautiful.
Finally, there are the shallow waters and the golden saw grass—the unmistakable signature of the Everglades. As far as the eye can see is this shimmering and glistening silent river of grass, looking as flat as a tabletop, sloping southward at less than two inches per mile [4 cm/km]. Imperceptibly, without a noticeable current, the water is ever flowing lazily toward the sea. It is the very lifeblood of the Everglades; without it, the Glades would die.
In the early part of this century, before the Everglades were so grossly bruised and mangled by human hands, this sea of grass measured as much as 50 miles [80 km] from east to west and extended 300 miles [500 km] from the Kissimmee River to the Florida Bay. An average-size man could wade the distance without getting his shoulders wet. Airboats skim the surface of the shallow waters through the tall, golden saw grass at stomach-turning speeds, giving windblown tourists the thrill of a lifetime. Anglers come to fish for bass and other freshwater and saltwater fish, as they have for generations.
A Desperate Call for Help
Toward the beginning of this century, Florida politicians and entrepreneurs considered the Everglades to be a morass of undesirable living things that should be removed to make room for real estate promotions, urban expansion, and agricultural development. “Dam it, dike it, drain it, divert it” became their clarion call. In 1905, before his election as governor of Florida, N. B. Broward vowed to wring the last drop of water out of that “pestilence-ridden swamp.”
Those were not idle promises. Monstrous earth-moving machines and dredging equipment were brought in. Under the direction and supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 56 miles [90 km] of canals were dug 30 feet [9 m] deep, destroying over a million square yards of wetlands in the process. Huge levees, dikes, and pumping stations were put up, and more canals and roads crisscrossed the Everglades. Precious, life-giving waters were diverted from this life-filled tract to support large, newly developed farmlands. Coastal cities also expanded westward, gobbling up more of the Everglades for huge housing communities, freeways, shopping centers, and golf courses.
Although part of the Everglades was declared a national park in 1947, the drainage and diversion of the water continued at a ruinous pace. Environmentalists agree that draining the Everglades—and spending millions of dollars to do it—was a huge blunder. Few understood that disrupting the flow of the water would have a devastating impact on the life in the Everglades. It took decades for the damage to show.
By the mid-1980’s, however, environmentalists and biologists were sounding the alarm that the Everglades were dying. It seemed that every living thing there was complaining, crying aloud for help. Water holes where alligators lived began to dry up in the droughts. When the rains came and areas were flooded, their nests and eggs were washed away. Now their numbers are drastically shrinking. Reports have them cannibalizing their young. Exotic wading birds that once numbered more than a million in that area have been reduced to thousands—down by 90 percent. The beautiful roseate spoonbills that once darkened the skies when returning to their rookeries have dwindled in number to a precious few by comparison. Since the 1960’s, the number of wood storks has declined from 6,000 nesting birds to just 500, endangering the species. Also threatened are the rich Florida Bay nurseries for the state’s shellfish industry. The population of all other vertebrates, from deer to turtles, has decreased 75 percent to 95 percent, reported one source.
With the steady encroachment of agriculture and other human activities came pollutants from fertilizer and pesticide runoffs that slowly contaminated the land and the water. High levels of mercury have been identified in all levels of the food chain, from fish in the marshes up through raccoon and alligators and turtles. Fishermen are advised not to eat bass and catfish caught in certain waters that are laced with mercury leached from the soil. Panthers have also been victims of man’s invasion, killed not only by mercury poisoning but also by poachers. So endangered is this animal that it is believed to number fewer than 30 in the entire state and 10 in the park. A number of the Everglade’s native plants are also on the brink of extinction.
Some observers and environmentalists believe that the Everglades may have reached the point of no return. Government and park officials and many environmentalists believe, however, that with funding and swift action on the part of state and federal agencies, the Everglades can be saved. “No one really knows when something this big and complex reaches the point of no return,” said one official. “It may already have happened.” Biologist John Ogden admits that the possibility of reclaiming the Everglades is not a rosy one, but he is optimistic. “I have to be,” he said. “The alternative is a biological desert, with a remnant of park containing a few alligators here, a few bird nests there and a nice museum with a stuffed panther as the centerpiece.”
The hue and cry of Florida officials, biologists, and environmentalists nationwide has been heard by federal officials and politicians in Washington, including the president and the vice president of the United States. Now it is back to the drawing board for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose predecessors botched the job they undertook years ago. Their brand new vision is to save the Everglades and the life in it, rather than drain it, dam it, and divert it.
Clearly, the issue is water. “The base line for success is cleaner water—and plenty of it,” wrote U.S.News & World Report, and “that can come only at the expense of agriculture or urban areas. South Florida’s sugar plantations and vegetable farms are the likeliest targets.” “Slicing the water pie will be tough, but we’ve given enough, and we can’t give any more,” declared Everglades Park superintendent Robert Chandler. “There has to be serious conservation by others,” he said. Proponents of the Everglades reclamation proposal fear that their greatest fight against the project will come from the Florida sugarcane growers and farmers who have large landholdings in the Everglades. At the expense of life in the Glades, huge amounts of water are being siphoned off to support their needs.
Reclaiming and saving the Everglades would be the boldest and most expensive restoration plan in history. “We are talking about a lot of money, we are talking about a lot of land, and we are talking about ecosystem restoration on a scale we have never seen before anywhere in the world,” said the official in charge of the Everglades project at the World Wildlife Fund. “Over the next 15 to 20 years, at a cost of roughly $2 billion,” explained Science magazine, “the Corps and state and other federal agencies plan to replumb the entire Florida Everglades ecosystem, including 14,000 square kilometers [5,400 square miles] of wetlands and engineered waterways.”
Additionally, the plan calls for buying about 100,000 acres [40,000 ha] of farmland near Lake Okeechobee and converting it into marshland that would filter out pollutants draining off the remaining farmland. Sugarcane growers are up in arms over a proposed cut of the industry’s federal subsidy by one cent per pound to raise additional money to clean up the Everglades. “Restoration should be paid for by those who benefited most from destroying it: Florida’s sugar growers and processors,” USA Today newspaper editorialized. It is estimated that the one-cent-per-pound assessment on Florida sugar will produce $35 million per year.
It is expected that the fight—farmers and sugarcane growers versus biologists, environmentalists, and nature lovers—will continue as it has in other parts of the United States where the same factions are pitted against each other. Vice President Gore appealed for cooperation. “By working together,” he said, “we can heal this division and ensure a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. But the time to act is now. There is no other Everglades in the world.”
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USDA Forest Service
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A pair of nesting anhingas, or snakebirds
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A trio of wading raccoon
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Great blue heron
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Limpkin, also called the crying bird
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