Feature

special issue

A New Day Dawns in the Everglades

Every land has a story to tell. The best stories of wild nature--the ones we treasure the most--are those of endurance, those in which the canyons and rivers and forests pulse with their innate uniqueness. But what we like best about these stories is that they never end. The Everglades is a land whose rich, largely unknown story almost ended prematurely. But today, thanks to an unprecedented ecological intervention--detailed in this issue of Audubon--the majestic wetlands will live on.

The Everglades was born after the most recent ice age, just a few centuries before the Egyptians began building the pyramids. Yet until American soldiers pursued Seminole Indians through the marshes in the mid-1800s, the "river of grass" remained a mystery to outsiders. By century's end, explorers had begun traversing the dense sawgrass, mangrove forests, lakes, and tree islands, and discovered a lush, subtropical wilderness.

But back then wetlands were considered wastelands, so land developers and Florida politicians set out to convert the Everglades into an agricultural Eden. Canals were cut, siphoning water from the ecosystem's main tributaries and out to sea. A promotional campaign lured settlers to the Everglades. When South Florida's climate--in the form of floods, droughts, and hurricanes--intruded time and again, the state's response was to build more canals and dikes.

In the late 1940s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to finish the job. During the next several decades it created its own extensive network of levees, canals, and pumping stations, meant to finally render South Florida habitable for farmers and an ever-expanding population. By the 1970s the costs of that effort--the loss of wildlife and a compromised water supply--had become crystal clear. Half of the historic wetlands was lost, to housing developments and 700,000 acres of farms and sugarcane fields.

Today what remains of the Everglades is on life support: Its tree islands and mangroves are decimated; its waters are polluted with agricultural runoff; its estuaries are barren; and its wading-bird rookeries are all but gone. What's more, because of the extensive drainage system, experts predict that South Florida may soon run out of water for its residents.

Recognizing the severity of the situation, hundreds of scientists from dozens of state and federal agencies set out in the 1990s to craft an ecological rescue. What resulted, after a decade of political bickering and compromise, is the $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which Congress passed last year. During the next 38 years, engineers and ecologists will attempt to fix the damage wrought by a century of drainage, and redirect the lost water back to the Everglades' desiccated marshes. But the plan requires a delicate balancing act: It is as much a water-supply and flood-protection effort as it is an ecological restoration. And Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades' heart and lungs, is in dire need of more help than it is slated to receive.

Despite the uncertainties, the ecologists, engineers, environmentalists, and politicians who joined together on the ambitious restoration plan are optimistic that it will ultimately work, and that it will not only enable the Everglades to begin anew but also provide a blueprint for rescuing nature around the world.

 


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© 2001  NASI

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Forever Glades

128,000 years ago: The last interglacial warming period begins. South Florida is covered by a warm, tropical lagoon in which the coastal ridge and much of the limestone bedrock of the southern Everglades are being formed.

5,000 years ago: The ocean's rise drops to approximately nine inches per year, and southern Florida's mangrove coast starts to stabilize. The Everglades is born.

1513: Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon names North America's most familiar appendage La Florida, or "land of flowers." He finds no streets of gold, only the fierce and proud Calusa, who mortally wound him on a subsequent visit.

1545: Thirteen-year-old Hernando d'Escalante Fontaneda, shipwrecked en route from Spain to Colombia, begins 17 years as a Calusa captive. Although Fontaneda writes that the Calusa have "no gold, less silver, and less clothing," they have nevertheless fashioned a high prehistoric culture along the edge of the Everglades, building oyster-shell islands and digging canals.

1572: Sugarcane is first grown in Florida, in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.

1823: The word Everglades is coined from the old English "glyde" or "glaed," which means "opening in the forest."

1832: John James Audubon visits southern Florida to study the area's amazing variety of birds. He paints a number of species, including the roseate spoonbill, the brown pelican, the magnificent frigatebird, the crested caracara, and the great blue heron.

1835: The second of three Seminole Wars begins. Soldiers report on the nature and extent of southern Florida, which has been virtually unknown to most Americans.

1844: On May 28 the first snail kite collected in the Everglades for scientific purposes is shot near the headwaters of the Miami River, the current site of Miami International Airport.

1845: Florida becomes the 27th state in the Union, with a population of 70,000.

1850: Congress passes the Swamplands Act, which authorizes the transfer of 20 million acres to the state of Florida for the purpose of drainage and reclamation.

1875: William T. Hornaday and C.E. Jackson collect a pair of large crocodiles in Arch Creek, near the head of Biscayne Bay. These are the first two American crocodiles taken for science.

1881: The first Everglades reclamation effort is launched. Philadelphia millionaire Hamilton Disston buys 4 million acres from the state of Florida; within 10 years he drains 50,000 acres and cuts 11 miles of canals.

1884: William Harney, writing in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, proposes an elaborate system of canals and dikes to harness the flow of water out of Lake Okeechobee.

1893-1895: A terrible freeze cripples the citrus industry in central Florida, attracting the interest of railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who becomes convinced that Fort Dallas, later called Miami, is the heart of Florida's true fortunes.

1895: Charles Cory bags four cougars in the Everglades for Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. They are the first scientific specimens of the Florida panther, which will be named Puma concolor coryi, after the marksman.

1897: Explorer Hugh Willoughby crosses the southern Everglades from the Harney River to Miami by canoe. He recounts his trip in Across the Everglades, declaring that more is known about the interior of Africa than about the interior of southern Florida.

1900: The population of the lower east coast of Florida is listed as 22,961; when the price of feathers exceeds the price of gold, some of these people begin to kill wading birds for the millinery trade.

1901: The Audubon Society spearheads efforts to protect bird populations from hunters, resulting in laws prohibiting bird hunting in much of the Everglades.

1903: Floods destroy crops in South Florida, and President Teddy Roosevelt transfers more federally owned land to the state.

1905: Napoleon Bonaparte Broward is elected governor of Florida, largely by promising to create an "Empire of the Everglades," by wringing the last drop of water out of that "pestilence-ridden swamp."

1905: The Audubon Society's first president, William Dutcher, hires Guy Bradley as Florida's first game warden, to prevent the poaching of wading birds. Bradley is shot to death in July.

1906: Melaleuca is imported from Australia as an ornamental and is later planted to help drain the wetlands. Today it covers 359,000 acres of South Florida, 47,000 of which support little else; its control becomes one of the restoration's principal goals.

1912: Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad reaches Key West. The railroad's construction constricts the flow of water between Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, affecting both the bay and the chain of coral reefs off the eastern shore of the Florida Keys.

1917: In May a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers and their young are observed on Royal Palm Hammock, in the southern Everglades, the last reported ivorybill sighting in South Florida.

1928: Ernest F. Coe, a distinguished member of the American Society for Landscape Architects, forms the Tropical Everglades Park Association and writes a proposal for a national park to be located within the Everglades of southern Florida.

1930: The population of the lower east coast of Florida reaches 228,454.

1930: Several years after a pair of deadly hurricanes cause Lake Okeechobee to overflow, drowning more than 2,500 people, a federal flood-control project is signed by President Herbert Hoover. The spoils from dredging a navigable canal around the southern end of the lake are used to build Hoover Dike, which disconnects the lake from the Everglades.

1930: Dr. T. Gilbert Pearson, president of the National Audubon Society, sits on a commission to investigate the possibilities of a national park unit in the Everglades.

1933: About 15,000 acres of sugarcane are being grown in the northern Everglades.

1934: Rookery Branch, a nesting colony near the mouth of Shark River Slough, the Everglades' main drainage, hosts nearly a quarter-million white ibis, the largest colony since the millinery trade devastated the rookeries.

1934: Congress authorizes the creation of Everglades National Park; 2,164,480 acres are to be acquired through public and private donations.

1943: In March, after a killing frost and a severe drought, almost the entire Everglades goes up in flames.

1944: October marks the beginning of a 10-month drought, during which less than an inch of rain falls on South Florida. The Everglades, now referred to as a "dust bowl," burns for months and leads The Miami Herald to proclaim, "Only an Act of God can halt the flames."

1947: Summer thunderstorms and a pair of hurricanes dump 108 inches of rain on parts of South Florida. Dairy farmers in Dade and Broward counties, driven out by the floods, head north into the Kissimmee River valley.

1947: Marjory Stoneman Douglas gives the world a lasting and gorgeous image with her landmark The Everglades: River of Grass.

1947: President Harry Truman dedicates 1.3 million acres for Everglades National Park, the first park in the world to be protected for its biology rather than for its spectacular scenery.

1948: Because of torrential rainfall the previous year, Congress establishes a public-works project called the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control, and charges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with controlling the water flow of the Everglades.

1959: Canals and water-control structures are completed to separate the northern Everglades, which is now called the Everglades Agricultural Area, from the central and southern Everglades.

1960: On September 10, Hurricane Donna passes across Florida Bay and up the mangrove coast. The storm packs steady winds of 140 mph and gusts as high as 180 mph. Donna drops 12 inches of rain on South Florida and sends a 5-foot storm surge through Everglades City.

1963: The canal and levee system that divides the central Everglades into three Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) is completed. WCA 2 and WCA 3 are managed by the Florida Freshwater Game and Fish Commission. WCA 1, called Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, is leased from the state and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

1967: On March 11, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially places the Florida panther, the snail kite, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow on the federal endangered-species list.

1970: After several years of drought, compounded by the Army Corps of Engineers' elaborate drainage system, Congress sets the minimum water flow to Everglades National Park at 315,000 acre-feet per year. It is still not enough water.

1971: As part of the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control, the Army Corps of Engineers completes the straightening of the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee's largest tributary. The winding, 105-mile-long river is straightened to a deep, wide, 56-mile-long canal. Some 45,000 acres of floodplain become pasture.

1971: Writing in Audubon, Marjory Stoneman Douglas calls Ernest F. Coe "the Forgotten Father" of the Everglades. "Without his startling vision, slow-burning passion, steely endurance, and indomitable will," she says, "there would be no Everglades National Park today."

1972: The state of Florida begins to acquire land to create Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, the largest, deepest strand in the Big Cypress Swamp, to protect its unusual collection of rare plants and animals.

1975: The American crocodile, whose entire North American range is in and around Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay, is placed on the federal endangered-species list. At the time, the population is listed as 200 animals, with just 10 nesting females.

1976: The Florida legislature passes the Kissimmee River Restoration Act, mandating the development of restoration measures.

1976: On October 26, UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, recognizes Everglades National Park as part of the international network of biosphere reserves.

1979: The Everglades Agricultural Area temporarily stops backpumping phosphorus-rich water into Lake Okeechobee. To spare the lake, the South Florida Water Management District begins pumping untreated farm runoff into the central Everglades. Today more than 50,000 acres of phosphorus-loving cattails have spread across the WCAs.

1983: Governor Bob Graham launches his Save Our Everglades program with an executive order calling for restoring the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades.

1984: On February 28 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service places the wood stork on the endangered-species list.

1989: The federal government authorizes the purchase of 109,000 acres to increase the flow of water into the eastern side of Everglades National Park.

1990: About 450,000 acres of sugarcane are being grown in the northern Everglades.

1992: On August 24, Hurricane Andrew, the nation's most economically devastating disaster ever, rips through the southern tip of Florida, spreading melaleuca seeds across the central Everglades.

1994: A new state law, called the Everglades Forever Act, gives the South Florida Water Management District the power to impose taxes on sugar farmers to pay for the cleanup of farm runoff. The state plans to build a 40,000-acre artificial marsh and sets preliminary water-quality standards to be met by 1997.

1995: Eight female cougars from West Texas are released in South Florida to bolster the Florida panther's dwindling gene pool.

1996: Save Our Everglades, a group headed by Mary Barley, places three amendments on the Florida ballot. One would force farmers to pay a penny for each pound of sugar produced in the Everglades Agricultural Area to fund an Everglades cleanup. Sugar interests spend $35 million to defeat the amendment.

1998: In May, Marjory Stoneman Douglas dies at the age of 108.

1999: The final draft of the Restudy, a 3,500-page dossier on Everglades restoration, is completed on April 1 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The plan has a budget of $7.8 billion and a timeline of more than 30 years.

2000: On May 16, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signs the Everglades Investment Act, representing the state's commitment to paying 50 percent of the cost of restoring the Everglades.

2000: On December 11, President Bill Clinton signs the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, committing some $4 billion to Everglades restoration.