Restoring the Everglades

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(Host) As sun-starved Northerners head for Florida to take a break from winter, commentator Ted Levin observes that there’s more to care about in Florida than just the weather.

(Levin) For more than a century people have been lured to the edges of the Everglades by winter warmth. We have made it a theme park of the sun, and then slowly converged on its the wild interior. We bent the land to suit our needs and fancies to such an extreme that we have extinguished the essence of Florida that captured us in the first place. What was once a gorgeous yet inhospitable landscape has been drained and shackled to such an extent that the pockets that survive call out to us more sharply in their fragility.

Restoring the Everglades is a test. If we pass, the pundits say, we get to keep the planet. After decades of abuse, the most ambitious ecological restoration ever attempted is underway, a more than $8 billion effort. The world is watching, for the Everglades has become a model of ecological and political maneuvering.

Animals that have wandered the glades for thousands of years are now being forced into compromising habitats.

Several years ago, my father returned home to find a black bear stuck between a beauty salon and the entrance to the villas where he lived. The bear hugged the trunk of a pine less than a hundred yards from a busy four-lane road until a game warden relocated it.

Since 1900 Florida has lost the monk seal, the red wolf, and the Carolina parakeet. In May 1917 a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers nested in Royal Palm Hammock in the southern Everglades, the last reported ivorybill sightings in South Florida.

Even Everglades National Park, comprising more than two million acres, has not been immune to local species extinctions. The park’s pine islands had been whittled down to the point where bluebirds, brown-headed nuthatches, and red-cockaded woodpeckers all vanished during the 1950s. How long could a six-foot eastern diamondback rattlesnake lie unmolested on the warm macadam of a new development. Or any snake for that matter.

Yet South Flordia still has a lot to recommend it. Nowhere else in North America can you find crocodiles, manatees, and rainbow-colored tree snails, great white herons and ghost orchids, or towering royal palms. Nowhere else did a wild, shallow marsh creep southward through a hundred-mile long valley of sawgrass, and nowhere else does a wilderness border a megalopolis the size of Miami. The only population of mountain lion east of the Mississippi roams the swamps
and pines.

Before the 1900s, the Everglades carried so much water it rarely dried. Now, in the aftermath of drainage, it dries every second or third year. Between 1930 and 1960, 80,000 to 100,000 white ibis roosted in the mangroves south of Big Cypress Swamp. Now the roosts are all but empty, the ibis having moved away. What’s an ibis worth? A hundred thousand ibis, blood-red bills probing puddles in the sawgrass?

What’s the Everglades itself worth? Imagining a life without goose music, Aldo Leopold wrote “We may as well do away with stars, or sunsets.”

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in hatural history. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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