The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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Even before there was an Everglades National Park, there was Clewiston. It is said to be the sweetest little city in America, having been sweetened by the United States Sugar Corporation, which raises cane and beef cattle there on 100,000 acres of flat Florida muckland. U.S. Sugar also owns the Clewiston Inn. In the southern comfort of the lounge, one can sit and admire the cane growers’ tribute to the Everglades. It is a large, free-flowing oil canvas snugged around the windows and door and behind the polished bar, a romantic rendering of wild birds gliding above a wet landscape of cypress and saw grass, of alligators wallowing in the everglade sloughs. “How much did it cost?” a stranger asks, for the dollar is of eminent concern in Florida. The bartender says it cost $35,000, “and that was way back in 1935.” He holds out a wine list. The prices of the liquor are on the front; on the back, keyed to the painting, the wild species are identified from left to right. “That’s the way it used to be around here,” says the bartender, gazing toward the window. “But it sure looks different now”

”We have permanently safeguarded an irreplaceable primitive area,” said President Truman as he dedicated Everglades National Park in 1947. But what is permanence, and what is “safeguarded?” Did he speak too soon?

There was a time, once, when all of South Florida was like this painting. Great pearly thunderheads taller than mountains rolled off the Gulf Stream, and the rains slashed across the gray expanse of Lake Okeechobee, down the long curving river of saw grass—the true Everglades—into the mangrove swamps of the Shark River, Cape Sable, and Florida Bay. For one hundred miles, from Okeechobee to the tip of the Florida peninsula, the flat, sloping land, losing less than two inches of elevation to the mile, slowly carried the sweet water south over spongelike peats and limestone aquifers to mix finally in the brine of the Gulf. And with the flow of water came a flow of life duplicated nowhere on this planet. Great flocks of egret and ibis, by the hundreds of thousands, wings flashing in the tropical sun, whitened the sky as if to match the grandeur of the clouds themselves. In the mangroves and along the sloughs, white pelican and spoonbill and heron foraged the shallows for fish. And on the hammocks and in the cypress swamp and the drier pinelands, bear and panther and bobcat padded through the shadows, contributing their presence to the balance of Everglades life no less than the birds or the fish, the grass, the peat, the sun, or the rain. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” the naturalist John Muir once observed, “we find it hitched to everything else.” Muir was describing what, in general, ecosystems are all about. It happens that his description profoundly reveals the secret—and, perhaps, the fate—of the OkeechobeeEverglades-Big Cypress region of South Florida.

In recognition of the region’s unique natural values, the United States Congress in its wisdom authorized, at the lower end of this watershed, the creation of a national park, so that all of these biotic treasures might be observed in an environment far more appropriate than that of a Clewiston saloon. It was a fine idea. It still is. Yet before the park was created, the Everglades as an ecosystem had already been irrevocably altered. Today the thunderheads spill their waters across a landscape that has been drained, diked, and cultivated. The rich peats oxidize under the hot tropical sun. The Everglades grow bald, and the park receives most of its ancient overland flow not by the grace of God but through canals—and the goodness of the state of Florida and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The water is no longer sweet. It carries chemicals from the farms and cattle ranches upstream. And some of these chemicals are contributing to the extermination of animal species in Everglades National Park.

Across the million and a half acres of citrus, melon, truck, and cane fields in central and southern Florida, DDT and other persistent chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds have been in heavy use. Milton Kolipinski and Aaron Higer of the U.S. Geological Survey in Miami sampled sediments from the Shark River Slough and from the Canal 67 extension, the main pipeline into Everglades Park. They found that the sediments contain concentrations of chlorinated hydrocarbons in an order of magnitude one thousand times greater than that of the overlying water. Biological magnification through the food chain, a process in which each successive predator accumulates all the pesticide residues from the fats of its prey, often begins in so simple an organism as algae. Algae grow in the Canal 67 extension and the Shark River Slough.

On the desk of the superintendent of Everglades National Park, John Raftery, lies a copy of the U.S. Interior Department’s list of this country’s rare and endangered species. The fauna of the park are well represented: Florida panther, American crocodile, alligator, roseate spoonbill, wood stork. The southern bald eagle is also on the list. Kolipinski reports that bald eagle eggs in Everglades National Park are now showing DDT concentrations of twenty-four parts per million. Concentrations of twenty-six parts per million are already known to have so weakened the shells of falcon eggs that the weight of the nesting female crushed them.