Skip to main content

The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

May 2024
27min read

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

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.

By some accounts, then, Everglades National Park itself is being crushed in its l.4-million-acre entirety and may soon be a terminal case. On the one hand, there is agriculture, pressing in from the north and east. On the other, along the coastal ridge between Miami and Palm Beach and in Collier County on the Gulf, urbanization and increasing population are placing new stresses on the region’s resources.

With a population well in excess of six million, Florida now ranks ninth in the nation. Its net growth since 1950 has been an amazing 119 per cent. In fact, it is growing at a faster rate than California. Collier County has almost doubled its population in just nine years, and the combined population of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties now approaches two million. The Florida Development Commission is delighted with these figures. In one brochure the commission proudly points out that Florida’s population density is ill people per square mile, “as compared to 55 for the United States.” And that, adds the commission, does not take into account the 600,000 out-of-staters vacationing in Florida on any given day. In one sense, the tourists are as essential to the economy of the Sunshine State as water is to the ecology of the park. “Come on down!” the ads for weekends in Miami once declared. Now bumper stickers try a new approach: “Help keep our state green—bring money.”


What might well bring the most money (if not the “green”) to South Florida is the Bade County Port Authority’s plan to build an international jetport large enough to swallow the four biggest airports in America. The authority’s favored thirty-nine-square-mile site in the Big Cypress Swamp was quietly purchased in 1968, and by last fall part of it had been turned into a training facility. Though the site lies at its nearest point a full six miles from the northern boundary of Everglades National Park, its development into a jetport would very likely have contaminated the water entering the park from the Big Cypress watershed. Forty per cent of the park’s overland water is supplied by this watershed. The Dade plan has generated more notoriety, more conservationist ire, and more concern about environmental values than any single public works project conceived in this nation, anywhere, at any time. As this article goes to the printer, the jetport in this site is dead, or mostly dead; but conservationists know that schemes so large, and so full of profit potential, often come back to life. Consider the size of it:

For openers, the Port Authority announced that its jetport would be served by a one-thousand-foot-wide “transportation corridor” paralleling the Tamiami Trail from Miami on the Atlantic Ocean to Naples on the Gulf. The corridor would encompass, it was hoped, a new U.S. interstate highway, a high-speed, air-cushion-ride transit system, and perhaps even another canal, a “recreational waterway” for hydrofoils and airboats. And finally, as the jetport grew, commercial and residential development would gather about the fringe of the site, generating all kinds of benefits to both Dadeand Collier counties, the common boundary of which would be straddled by the jetport. By the year 2000, if one were to take the authority seriously, the site would have been ready to assume its manifest destiny as a spaceport for commercial rocket launching and recoveries, a sort of Cape Kennedy-by-the-Cypress.

Alligators make nice shoes and pocketbooks

Such schemes, not surprisingly, soon engaged the wrath of the nation’s leading conservation organizations, and in particular the National Audubon Society, whose notable history in defense of the Everglades traces back to 1902, when the forerunner of the present society hired wardens to protect the egret rookeries from plume hunters. In a well known 1967 joust with the Army engineers, the society went to court to stop the corps from opening up Canal III and thus letting salt water into a vital fresh-water area of the park. It seems only proper, therefore, that the most dedicated and effective conservationist in the jetport fight has been the National Audubon Society’s southeastern representative, Joseph Browder. And as the opposition flared, so did the tempers of the jetport’s chief proponents. “Alligators make nice shoes and pocketbooks,” said Michael O’Neil, Florida’s Transportation Secretary, when asked by reporters about complaints thatthejetport might destroy the ecological balance of Everglades National Park. “I’m not really concerned about the alligators,” O’Neil added. “And I don’t miss seeing the dinosaur either.” The director of the Port Authority, Alan C. Stewart, lumped all Everglades species together as “yellow-bellied sapsuckers” and went on to promise conservationists that he would build them an astrodome for butterfly chasing at the new jetport. His attacks on the opposition caused one wag to label him the “fastest lip in the East” and his superior to censure him for being “arrogant and offensive.”

The approach of Stewart’s top deputy, Richard H. Judy, was somewhat less heavy-handed. At one time an official for the Florida Highway Department, Judy waded into the fray evangelically, as if he were out to convert every last conservationist into a chamber of commerce booster. “This is going to be one of the great population centers of America,” prophesied Judy. “Big Cypress Swamp isjust typical South Florida real estate.” At one point, Judy felt compelled to elevate his cause to Biblical heights. “We will do our best,” he said in a letter to Dade County’s mayor, Chuck Hall, “to meet our responsibilities and the responsibilities of all men to exercise dominion over the land, sea, and air above us as the higher order of man intends.”

Judy’s “higher order” was not necessarily everyman’s, nor every politician’s. When conservationists began to apply some pressure in Washington, the Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel, barely thawed from his gubernatorial reign in Alaska and still smarting from his confirmation-under-fire (no conservation for conservation’s sake, he had said), flew to the Everglades to have a look for himself. Ostensibly the purpose of Hickel’s visit was to publicize a crackdown on alligator poaching in the park, but behind the scenes he got an earful about the Dade-Collier jetport. What is more, Hickel discovered that Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr., a fellow Republican, was perhaps less than enthusiastic about the Dade County Port Authority’s favored site.

Hickel was good copy, almost as good as the rhetorical overkill being applied by the Port Authority. Concern for the Everglades began to spread well beyond Florida. In quick succession last summer Life, Look , and Business Week , along with Time magazine’s new “Environment” section, turned their editorial guns on the jetport. The New York Times dispatched the Pulitzer Prize reporter Homer Bigart to the scene of the contemplated crime, and the Christian Science Monitor sent its Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Cahn. Audubon magazine led the pack with a stinging indictment of the jetport by Paul Brooks, author of Roadless Area and a past master of demonstrating that the pen is mightier than the slide rule.

Stewart and Judy of the Port Authority refused to give an inch. “We’re going to prove once and for all,” said Judy, “that public projects can be constructed to complement the environment and not destroy it.” Before long, two prominent national agencies were putting Judy’s claim to the test.

First out with its report, in September, was the Environmental Study Group of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. Though it stopped short of labelling the proposed jetport an ecological monster, the study group did raise some grave doubts—not about the welfare of alligators but about the good health of people. The report concluded that development of an international jetport at the Dade-Collier location would pose serious medical problems. “A few passengers each year,” the academicians noted, “will be incubating malaria, dengue fever, filariasis. … The proposed jetport site is surrounded by a swamp that harbors many varieties of mosquitoes … it is possible that mosquitoes in the area could feed on an infected passenger and subsequently pass the disease to the Miccosukee Indians.” But, the report added, if mosquito control were to be pursued with persistent pesticides (as it most surely would be), “this in itself may cause pollution problems … in Everglades National Park.” And to that and similar notes, the academies’ study group added another warning:

Unmodified ecosystems may become as important to ecology as a scientific discipline as primitive tribes have been to anthropology. The midwestern prairies in their original form have completely disappeared as have the virgin forests of the Northeast. The Everglades should not be allowed to go the way of these other environments, which were lost before they were scientifically understood.

Even as the academies’ report was being circulated, the Interior Department released its own. This second study was to have been a co-operative venture with the Department of Transportation, home of the Federal Aviation Administration, which had contributed $663,000 to the jetport training field, but the final draft, hard-hitting and uncompromising in its opposition to the jetport, carried a disclaimer absolving the Transportation Department of any responsibility for the report’s conclusions. It was not difficult for the outsider to understand why. Not only would full development of a commercial jetport and ancillary construction “inexorably destroy the South Florida ecosystem and thus the Everglades National Park,” the Interior report charged, but the training airport itself is “intolerable … because the collateral effects of its use will lead inexorably to urbanization and drainage.”


Compiled by a team under the direction of Luna B. Leopold, senior hydrologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior report projected, at full development, a jetport that would service one million landings and take-offs a year and give rise to a residential-commercial community of 150,000 people. Such a jetport community would, according to the Leopold team, produce a few inevitable by-products: four million gallons of sewage and 1.5 million gallons of industrial wastes each day; ten thousand tons of jet-engine air pollutants scattered annually across the Big Cypress-Everglades watershed; disruption of the Miccosukee society, and extermination of at least one endangered species, the Cape Sable sparrow, through destruction of its habitat.

A pelican cannonball

There is also a grim warning in the Leopold report for the millions of air travellers who would use the Dade-Collier jetport. Bird strikes have been known to cause airplane crashes, and around the jetport site “flocks may exceed 50,000 and may include numbers of white pelicans and wood storks, species that habitually soar to high altitudes.” The mature white pelican, incidentally, weighs about seventeen pounds. At more than 600 miles per hour any jet striking an object of that bulk would be striking a cannonball.

Finally, early this winter, a third study of the jetport and its environmental impact emerged. This one, commissioned by Dade County and executed by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall’s Overview Group, recommended construction of a “twenty-first-century” jetport at a new site in the Big Cypress, far enough removed from the park to minimize the impact on the wilderness of noise and pollution. Under the Udall plan, “people facilities” would be separated from “plane facilities.” The terminal would be located in metropolitan Miami. There passengers would board a high-speed ground transportation system similar to the 200-miles-per-hour French Aerotrain, to be whisked directly to their waiting plane in the Big Cypress. The Udall plan would restrict jetport access to such a rail system; everyone using the port would therefore have to patronize the ground system. This, in turn, would generate sufficient revenue over the years to create a “conservation fund.” If Udall has his way, the fund would repay bonds issued to finance public acquisition of the Big Cypress even before the jetport was completed. Udall thus would make development of the jetport contingent on the nondevelopment of the Big Cypress, and thereby assure protection of the park’s vital western watershed.

The conservationists were clearly the victors of the Great Jetport Debate of 1969. They created a strong coalition that in September forced Governor Kirk and Secretary Hickel to agree not to support further construction of facilities at the Dade-Collier site. U.S. Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe—somewhat reluctantly, it would appear—went along with this. But there remained a major sore point between Hickel and Volpe: the training airport. Hickel was reportedly furious at Volpe’s announcement of regulations governing the operation of the training field last November, when Hickel was away from Washington. He thought Secretary Volpe had agreed to consultation between their departments before taking action affecting the jetport.While pressure from environmentalists delayed operations at the training field, last fall its two-milelong runway served as a magnet to new development in the Big Cypress. Some private landowners, in fact, petitioned for a new drainage district encompassing thirty-three thousand acres between the training field and the park. But with the agreement this January to allow Bade County to operate its training field with the firm understanding that a new site for the jetport will be found and the effects on the environment will be regularly monitored, development in the Big Cypress has been made a lot less enticing.

In the hearts of many environmentalists, there is a nagging fear that with the much-ballyhooed banning of the Everglades jetport they may have won nothing but time. Governors and Cabinet officers, Crescendos of publicity and public outrage, come and go, but public works projects never die; they simply get shoved to a back burner, there to simmer until the next political turnover brings in a more appreciative chef. Meanwhile, for a great ecosystem and for Everglades National Park, other pots are brewing.

In Miami, James Redford of the Izaak Wallon League wears a pained expression. His deep tan cannot hide it. “This kind of park is very, very hard to preserve,” says Redford. For one thing, he points out, it is not the sort of national park that generates great public enthusiasm. Some 1.3 million visitors passed through Everglades’ gates in 1968, but it is doubtful that a quarter of them were impressed by the scenery, as is nearly everyone who visits such parks as YeIlowstone or Yosemite. Everglades is a biological park. Its drama is to be found in the spectacular display of wading birds, alligators, fish. For the trained observer it is a living laboratory in which one can see how things fit together in nature. But to the uneducated eye, most of the daily drama of plant and animal dynamics goes unnoticed. In consequence, the cheering section for Everglades National Park is skimpy.

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.

In 1926 and again in 1928 hurricanes swept up from the Caribbean and sent the waters of that great shallow saucer, Lake Okeechobee, howling down across the cultivated fields and into the towns and cities clustered around the edge of the lake. More than two thousand people drowned in the floods. Those disasters brought a new “improvement” to the Everglades: an immense levee, high enough that Okeechobee could never again overflow its banks as it had in those two dreadful autumns. And when the levee was completed, drought brought fire to the drained land below the lake. Even in Miami, the skies turned gray with smoke. “What had been a river of grass,” wrote Miss Douglas, “was made in one chaotic gesture of greed and ignorance and folly, a river of fire.” As far as some old-timers were concerned, the Everglades were finished.

Yet they were no more finished than the floods or the fires. Two hurricanes smashed across Florida in the fall of 1947, after a prolonged period of heavy rainfall, and left the farmers and townspeople holding a bill for $6o,000,000 in damages. That settled it. In Tallahassee and in Washington legislators demanded action: increase the carrying capacity of the canals; have the Army engineers raise even higher the Okeechobee levee; and create water-storage areas to hold back the flood waters from the defenseless cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami until the waters can be made useful to man —to irrigate his farmland and wet the limestone acquifers that keep sweet the drinking water of his cities. What Florida demanded, Florida got. They called it the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Over the next twenty years, the federal government was to underwrite this ambitious public works program to the extent of some $ 170,000,000 (and that only half the project). But in 1948, so soon after the last great flood, Florida was satisfied just to get the project authorized. Ranchers and city slickers were so excited about the prospects that hardly anyone took notice of South Florida’s other major event several months earlier—the official opening of Everglades National Park.

From the beginning, administrators of both the park and the Flood Control District (F.C.D.) have approached the critical problem of Everglades water like jealous twins tugging at opposite ends of a security blanket. Indeed, before either was a year old, a conflict was inevitable. Here was the flood control project seeking to harness the Everglades’ historic flow; there was the park, whose entire biota depended on water—and plenty of it. “The question,” Assistant Secretary of the Interior William E. Warne declared in a letter to the Army’s chief of engineers, “is not one of too much water, but a guarantee that there shall not be too little.”


The record, of course, shows that far too little water to sustain a fragile ecosystem dribbled into the national park during the 1962–65 drought. In fact, 1962 marked the completion of Levee 29 along the park’s northern boundary and the closing of floodgates along the Tamiami Trail. “Henceforth, flow would be artificially controlled,” notes the Leopold report. “The River of Grass, after 5,000 years, had ceased to flow.” In the park, water levels fell to an unprecedented low (at least in the annals of human mismanagement). Many species of aquatic life managed to survive in the park only because pockets of water remained in the deepest alligator holes and crayfish burrows in marl and limestone under the powder-dry muck. Dr. Frank C. Craighead, a well-known consulting biologist to the park, writing in 1968 of the alligator’s “keystone” position in the ecology of the Everglades and of the incredible destruction of wildlife in the park during those drought years of the early 1960’s, observed that “it seems reasonable to believe that [the alligators] now living represent a reduction to about one or two per cent of those present” before the man-induced droughts.

The park’s riparian competitors argue that the old overland flow through the saw grass was insignificant even before the region was crisscrossed with dikes and canals. True, most of the park’s water does come direct from the clouds: as much as 80 per cent of the total supply is the rain that falls on the park itself. Yet the remaining 20 per cent that would otherwise come slowly overland is essential, particularly after the rains have ended in October. “What flows in from the north,” says James H. Hartwell, a hydrologist of the U.S. Geological Survey in Miami, “is the .national park’s lifeblood.”

Based on a twenty-year flow pattern, hydrologists have determined that, in addition to direct rainfall, the park needs a minimum of 315,000 acre-feet per year (an acre-foot is the volume of water that will cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot) flowing into the Shark and Taylor sloughs through the F.C.D.’s floodgates and canals. Another 157,000 acre-feet flow naturally into the park’s western portion from the Big Cypress. Harking back to Assistant Secretary Warne’s first appeal to the Corps of Engineers, which has operational jurisdiction over F.C.D.’s waterworks, the National Park Service is again attempting to obtain from the corps and the state of Florida a binding guarantee that it will receive its minimum requirement of 315,000 acre-feet.

It’s like asking someone to share cancer

For its part, the F.C.D. insists that the corps has jurisdiction only over the floodgates and canals that supply the water, not the distribution of the water itself. Moreover, the F.C.D. so far has declined to guarantee any specific supply to the park. In times of drought, it argues, the park must “share in adversity.” Some park officials wince at the very phrase. “Who ever thought that up?” one of them asks. “It’s like asking someone to share cancer.” Manuel Morris, the Park Service’s chief troubleshooter in Everglades matters, is more flexible. “Sure,” he says, “we’ll share adversity—with the present water users. The trouble is, Florida keeps growing.”

Lately, under the administration of Governor Kirk, the F.C.D. has assumed a more co-operative attitude toward the park. The old alligators-be-damned crowd has been retired from the district’s board of commissioners. The present vice chairman (and former chairman), for example, is Robert Padrick, an amiable Fort Pierce auto dealer, a member in good standing of the Sierra Club, and Florida’s “Outstanding Conservationist” of 1969. Padrick and F.C.D. Chairman Robert P. Blakeley are in a tough spot. Their three water conservation areas in Palm Beach, Broward, and Bade counties are almost as large as the park itself. In and from them, the F.C.D. must try simultaneously to meet the needs of agriculture, prevent flooding, recharge the Biscayne aquifer from which the coastal cities draw their potable water, and accommodate the park. Beyond those responsibilities is yet another: the conservation areas are perhaps South Florida’s most popular and productive hunting and fishing grounds. Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission estimates that the three areas generate up to $10,000,000 a year in recreation spending. “I feel as strongly about our conservation areas,” says Padrick, “as Mr. Hartzog [George Hartzog, director of the National Park Service] feels about his park. It’s not a question of which is better, ham or eggs. The two go together.”

But not everyone is sure exactly how the two go together. Defenders of the park fear the power of the rod-and-gun lobby in Tallahassee (which fought successfully to delete 650,000 acres from the park’s authorized area during a 1958 boundary settlement). They are afraid, for example, that the F.C.D. will regulate water levels in its conservation areas to accommodate the demands of hunters and fishermen.

Joe Browder, of the Audubon Society, is appalled by what the hunters’ halftracks and swamp buggies have done to the fragile saw-grass Everglades in the conservation areas. “The state is turning Florida into a zoo,” complains Browder. “They’d stock the Everglades with giraffe if they thought they could sell licenses to shoot them. And they probably could.”

At the moment the state is too busy with its new water resources plan. Written largely by the Corps of Engineers at the request of Congress, and supported by the Park Service as a partial solution to its problems, the plan calls for a variety of new water-control structures, including another vertical addition to Okeechobee’s levee, so that the storage level of the lake can be raised four feet more than previously authorized.

As the new water plan moves ahead, scientists in South Florida are seeking answers to a variety of interlocking questions—questions about run-off and evapotranspiration, about oxidation and changes in plant communities—questions the public works engineers never learned how to ask until it was too late, or until they were dragged kicking to the query by the public discovery that somehow a healthy ecosystem might just happen to be as important as a healthy economy.

Among the unanswered questions, perhaps the most critical is this: Where does all the water in South Florida go ? One place it goes is the ocean. Even in Collier County, now outside the F.C.D.’s realm, new canals dredged by the Gulf-American Land Corporation and other speculative developers are pouring billions of gallons into the Gulf. But no one apparently knows how much. The loss from the east side of the Everglades is so great that the F.C.D. and the corps have included in their water plan provisions for an elaborate system of backpumping water, intercepting it before it reaches the sea and sending it back into Okeechobee and the conservation areas. Vice Chairman Padrick is excited about the backpumping scheme. But neither he nor the sharpest minds in the U.S. Interior Department can predict what effect the backpumped water might have on the lake and conservation areas, charged, as the water most certain will be, with all kinds of agricultural wastes and chemicals picked up in transit along the canals.


What often happens is eutrophication , the process by which a body of water dies prematurely from lack of dissolved oxygen, choked by a fatal bloom of algae. It is happening all over, and Lake Erie has long been the national prototype. Now scientists are beginning to look at 742-square-mile Okeechobee, the second largest lake wholly within the United States, for signs of the same fatal illness. And they are there. Not far from the inlet of Nubbin Slough, in the northeast corner of the lake, mats of algae grow green and thick in the still water.

“Even without backpumping,” says Frank Nix, a Park Service hydrologist, “there’s already so much fertilizer flowing down from the north that one of these days the entire lake could turn upside down.” The nitrate and phosphate fertilizer stimulates the growth of plant life in the lake. And as old plants die and decay, they rob the water of its oxygen. Then the fish die. Estimates are that Lake Okeechobee is capable of producing fifty million pounds of edible protein annually—channel catfish and bream, mainly, and fish-eating ducks. If the lake should die, so will the fish and the wildlife. And so, at the other end of the pipeline, will the park.

The greatest loss of water in South Florida is caused by evapotranspiration. What comes down must go up, either directly from the heat of the sun or through the cells of green plants. The loss from the lakes of the Kissimee Basin, from Okeechobee and the three conservation districts alone, is estimated to be the equivalent of seven million acre-feet a year. “Why, you wouldn’t believe it,” says Charles M. Wiesenfeld, the corps area engineer at Clewiston. “On a good hot day evaporation takes a quarter inch off the top of Okeechobee. ” With a little figuring, Wiesenfeld estimates that a quarter-inch across the whole, vast face of the lake amounts to 1.5 billion gallons—almost half as much water as the F.C.D. was sending each day into Everglades National Park last June, one of the wettest months in one of the wettest years on record.

They’re not farming that soil, they’re mining it

Faced with such prodigious losses, the corps and the F.C.D. are now investigating the feasibility of suppressing evaporation with monomolecular, paraffinlike films sprayed across the surface of the water. If even a 10 per cent reduction in evaporative losses could be achieved by such suppressants in Conservation Area 3 the volume of water saved would be more than sufficient to meet the national park’s annual requirement of 315,000 acre-feet. Still, suppressants, like backpumps, could create ecological problems. Preliminary research with some compounds indicates that the monolayers inhibit the emergence of mosquito larvae, which represent a key link in any aquatic food chain.

As the water goes, so goes the peatrich soil of South Florida. That is yet another loss, and it is an irrevocable one. In the days of Hamilton Disston, before the beginning of drainage on a massive scale, the Everglades muck lay fourteen to seventeen feet deep around the south end of Lake Okeechobee, tapering to shallower depths as the land sloped south. Then the canals carried off the water, and the muck was vulnerable—to fire, to wind erosion, to compaction, but most of all to oxidation, a kind of solid-state equivalent of evaporation. In some areas today, up to 40 per cent of the original organic soils is gone. In others, limestone outcrops rise in testament to the farmer’s folly. Even under the best management, which dictates that fields not in production be flooded, the muck is oxidizing at the rate of nearly an inch a year. “They’re not farming that soil,” says Browder of National Audubon. “They’re mining it.”

Physiographic changes no less dramatic are occurring within the park itself and are most visible not in the slope or thickness of soils but in the chameleon character of the park’s plant communities. Aerial photographs taken of the lower Shark River Slough in 1940 and again in 1964, and analyzed by Kolipinski and Higer of the U.S. Geological Survey, show a decrease in wet prairie and saw-grass marsh habitat and an increase in shrub communities. Kolipinski and Higer report two likely causes for this change: shorter periods of inundation and loss of soil through oxidation. These same two forces may also be triggering massive ecological disturbances in the Big Cypress Swamp abutting the park. According to Joel Kuperberg, executive director of the Collier County Conservancy, a significant number of young, shallow-rooted cypress are dying from lack of water. Kuperberg blames the drainage. “The way it’s going,” he says, “we’ll soon have a desert.”

But even Kuperberg, as disheartened as he may be, doubts that a Sahara is inevitable in South Florida. There may yet be time to pull the loose ends together, to answer the questions men are only now learning to ask. There may even be time enough to save Everglades National Park, if the men who could make the right decisions are willing to make them.

The record of the park is replete with bad decisions—and no decisions. The first mistake was by an inept U.S. Congress, which permitted more than half a million acres already authorized for the national park to be excluded when boundaries were fixed in 1958. Now it turns out that the park’s ecology has been disturbed by the development of these excluded areas. The National Park Service itself has been less than astute on a number of occasions. Biological research and management practices that should have been initiated a decade ago have only recently been implemented. Even worse, the Park Service has been slow to cope with immediate threats. In the case of the Everglades jetport, one park official actually gave his blessing to the Dade-Collier site because it was preferable to another site closer to the park. And when the full implications of the Dade-Collier site became known, it was not the Park Service that stirred up the conservationists. It was Robert Padrick, then chairman of the Flood Control District.


To be sure, a certain political realism pervades the Park Service’s executive echelon. Money for new national parks is scarce enough, but money to expand or protect old ones is even dearer. Thus at least three different drafts of the longawaited Everglades National Park “master plan” have been pigeonholed somewhere in the Interior Department; all reportedly urged—perhaps too emphatically—the acquisition of more land to protect the park’s ecosystem.

Most observers whose job security is not wedded to Park Service policies agree that the preservation of the park is dependent on large-scale land acquisition, both of private inholdings within the park and of lands outside to buffer the park’s vulnerable perimeter. The inholdings situation is critical. Inside the boundaries of the park some 3,500 individuals and corporations hold 74,000 acres. One area has been subdivided by a British syndicate that is selling the lots —sight unseen—to buyers throughout Northern Europe. In the so-called Lostman Five area, half a dozen new private fishing camps were completed last year. And in the 24,000-acre “Hole in the Donut”—where inholdings are protected from condemnation so long as they remain in agricultural use—pesticides from truck farms are pouring down the Taylor Slough into the park’s principal habitat for bald eagles. To acquire these inholdings at today’s land prices would cost the United States approximately $20,000,000.

Far larger appropriations would be necessary for the national government to acquire—as it should—those lands outside the park’s boundaries which are believed to be the most essential for assuring continued flow of water into the park from the Big Cypress. One tract runs west from the vicinity of the jetport site and includes the Fahkahatchee Strand, a wild Collier County slough noted for its hanging orchids, strangler figs, mossdraped cypress, and royal palms. The Fahkahatchee, in fact, is being considered for designation as a national monument. Now some conservationists are promoting its hunting and fishing values as reasons to acquire it as a national recreation area. The second critical buffer lies in Monroe County south of the Tamiami Trail, in the Loop Road area between the park’s panhandle and its northwest extension. Much of the land around here is high and dry enough to be vulnerable to development, and the rest of it feeds water directly into Everglades National Park.

At the very least, these lands in Monroe and Collier counties should be placed within a water conservation district somewhat similar to those managed on the east side of the Florida peninsula by the F.C.D. Creation of such a district was recommended by the Environmental Study Group of the National Academies as a measure to prevent the intrusion of salt water into the shallow aquifer underlying the Big Cypress Swamp, to assure an uninterrupted flow of surface waters into the western portion of the park, and to maintain an adequate water supply for the growing needs of southwest coastal communities.

Along with such solutions for the Big Cypress there must also come the guarantee that the national park will receive a minimum 315,000-acre-foot flow of water through the floodgates and canals of the F.C.D. Even those who are not enthralled by the challenge of maintaining the park’s biotic integrity must surely be interested in maintaining the productivity of the multi-million-dollar commercial fisheries in Florida Bay and in the” Gulf. The famed Tortugas shrimp, for example, grows to maturity in the mangrove estuaries of the park. Here the low salinity of brackish waters—controlled by the input of fresh water from the park’s sloughs—protects the juvenile shrimp from prédation. Durbin Tabb, a marine biologist of the University of Miami, warned more than five years ago: “If the park were to lose all of its supplemental water from the traditional watersheds … there is grave danger that the richest commercial fishery of the state would be seriously damaged.”

In many respects there is a test case here for all Americans. In the Everglades are all the environmental stresses one is likely to encounter anywhere in the nation. It is no neat little package, to be sure, and as long as the jetport fight appears to have been resolved, public concern over the future of the Everglades will doubtless dwindle. But the park does reflect, in microcosm, the challenge that all citizens face wherever the landscape is being poisoned and the forces of nature abused. Indeed, if Everglades National Park is to be saved, it will be done because the discrete segments of our society will have found a way to work together. If that can be accomplished, then perhaps what the park has taught us can begin to save America.


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.