The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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In Florida, of course, everyone says he is for saving the park. Ranchers and cane growers are proud to have it down there, sopping up all that good secondhand fertilizer. They are proudest when there is plenty of water. When there is not (as during the 1962–65 drought), such sometime boosters of the park begin to regard it and its water needs in a different fashion. Suddenly the cry is “Alligators versus people!”—as if the park’s values were somehow limited to the advancement of the reptile, and the interests of “people” were identical to those of the powerful agriculture interests.

The real issue, of course, is not animals versus people. It is a question of whether the state of Florida can continue to encourage unlimited residential and economic growth without precipitating ecological disaster not only to the park but to urban and agricultural interests as well. It is a question of the validity not of one park but of the entire national park concept, which holds that unique natural systems should be preserved intact for future generations as part of the nation’s heritage. And finally, it is a challenge to all Americans, who have only recently awakened to the fact that modern man must learn to manage the environment he has so rudely manipulated. Ignorance, as it has been displayed in the case of the Everglades, is no longer a valid excuse. “This park,” says Superintendent John Raftery, “could become the early warning system for America’s total environment. If we can find an answer for the Everglades, a true solution, then we can find an answer for almost anything.”

Promises of an “empire of the Everglades”

The Everglades have never yielded answers easily, except, perhaps, to the oldCalusa Indians, who were there even before the first white sails appeared on the eastern sea. To the Cabots, Ponce de Leon, and de Soto, the New World of South Florida ended within earshot of the beach. Scouts venturing farther inland brought back reports of tangled hammocks and of a landlocked sea of strange, cutting sedge that slashed the flesh. This was no country for the grandees of Spain, and for three hundred years Western man left it virtually untouched, a void on his maps.

 

Then a new breed, calling themselves Americans and hardened to discomfort on the Georgia frontier, came to the Everglades. They had been fighting Creek Indians in the northern swamps, and now they followed Andrew Jackson to Florida to evict the Seminoles, as they mistakenly called all the Indians they encountered there. For seven years the sound of war drums rolled across the Everglades. When they fell silent in 1842, the balance sheet showed four thousand Indians and runaway Negro slaves shipped off to Arkansas, fifteen hundred American men-at-arms and no one knows how many Indians dead in the swamps. Many live Indians remained—and their descendants still do.

With statehood in 1845, Florida looked again toward the Everglades, this time for the land it would need to attract new settlers. In her history, The Everglades: River of Grass , Marjory Stoneman Douglas describes the fever of that turning point:

Many veterans of the Indian wars remembered now with pleasure the sea about those southern beaches and the sun glinting along the great levels of the saw grass, the unending openness, the great light, the fine air. They knew well the blackness of the sawgrass muck. The idea sprang up spontaneously that the Everglades ought to be drained. It was an idea more explosive than dynamite, and would change this lower Florida world as nothing had changed it since the melting of the glacial ice …

In 1882 Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, lighted the fuse. He moved his first dredge out of Fort Myers up the lower Caloosahatchee River, and the drainage began. He was soon followed by other enterprising gentlemen, including one Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who ran for the governorship of Florida on the promise that “the Empire of the Everglades” could be drained for a dollar an acre. Broward reasoned that all one had to do was “knock a hole in a wall of coral” and let the water seek the level of the sea.

It was not quite that simple, for the “empire” of the Everglades is actually a vast basin that begins not at Okeechobee but one hundred miles north of the lake in the headwaters of the Kissimmee River near Orlando. Rainfall over this nine-thousand-square-mile area averages from fifty to sixty inches a year. Clearly, a hole in the coral would not suffice. So the dredges again proceeded upstream—up the Miami and New rivers; up the St. Lucie; joining Belle Glade to Boca Raton with the Hillsboro Canal—and all these sweetened the ocean with their runoffs.