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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades

By Rick Ferren

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Florida Keys & Everglades > Florida Everglades: Everglades National Park to Shark Valley

Florida Everglades: Everglades National Park to Shark Valley

The Everglades is a test, if we pass, we get to keep the planet."—From a plaque in the Everglades National Park visitor center.

When Ross Winne drove a notched stake into a small creek on Torry Island in September of 1928, he already had a suspicion of what to expect. A monstrous, late-summer hurricane had spawned somewhere in the tropics and was bearing down on Florida's east coast. The north wind preceding the storm was pushing the shallow water into the southern end of Lake Okeechobee.Click here for a new window with a larger version of this map.

Ross, his wife Gertrude, and their children had been only the second family to settle in this inhospitable but fast-changing land 18 years earlier. And although Ross and Gertrude's only goal was to survive and make a new life for themselves, they witnessed and took part in many of the major events of the first half of the twentieth century—events that would reshape the Everglades. One of these was the hurricane of 1928.

When the wind-driven water that day rose 6 inches in 15 minutes, Ross and Gertrude loaded their four children into the old pickup truck, warned their neighbors it was time to leave, and headed east towards West Palm Beach, straight into the teeth of the approaching hurricane. Twenty years later Gertrude would write that with the wind before them and the water behind, they chose the wind.

The Winne family survived that terrifying journey, making a stand against the storm while still in their truck on the outskirts of West Palm Beach. They were the lucky ones.

The people that stayed behind didn't fare as well. Nearly 2,000 people died that terrible night when the lake's waters piled high, then crashed through a low earthen dike at the southern end of the lake, sending a wall of water across the countryside, carrying away entire farming communities, scattering buildings and people for miles into the Everglades.

That single, disastrous event and the unimaginable loss of life energized an effort to gain total control over Florida's waterworks. Dovetailing nicely with an approaching Depression-era call for huge public works projects, the Army Corps of Engineers was soon busy creating the largest drainage and flood-control project in the world.

Prior to man's tampering, the Florida water system was a marvel of natural engineering. A giant watershed extended for 250 miles from as far north as currentday Orlando to the tip of the peninsula. During the rainy months each year, between June and October, water falling throughout Central Florida flowed down creeks and through swamps into the Kissimmee River.

From its headwaters, the Kissimmee then meandered 90 miles through wide marshy switchbacks, eventually delivering its precious cargo into the northern end of Lake Okeechobee. The wide, shallow lake covers more than 600,000 acres and is billed as the second largest freshwater lake entirely within the boundaries of the United States.

Other tributaries brought additional water to the lake from the wetlands east and west of the lake. As the water level rose during the annual rainy season, excess water spilled over the lake's southern rim. A small portion of the water soaked through the ground, helping to recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies water to most of the population of southeast Florida. The remainder formed a sheet-flow that followed an almost imperceptible slope of 2 to 3 inches per mile southwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

This is the heart and the lifeblood of the Everglades, a great, slow-moving river, up to 50 miles wide, but only a few inches deep. Held to the west by an unimposing, but sufficient Atlantic Coastal Ridge, the water swept slowly across 100 miles of a wet grassy prairie, flowing through Taylor Slough into Florida Bay and bending toward the west into the Gulf of Mexico through the Shark River Slough.

The predominant plant in this land, sawgrass, formed a great grassy plain, a river of grass flowing to the sea. Where the water was deeper it formed sloughs, slow-moving channels that held water most of the year and became a refuge for wildlife during dry times. Where the water was shallow tree islands formed, in elongated shapes reflecting the direction and flow of the water.

The system delivered a slow but steady supply of water to the plants and wildlife of the Everglades. By building a head of water in Lake Okeechobee, the system provided life-giving water to the Everglades long past the end of the rainy season, decreasing the length of time each year that Everglades wildlife had to deal with low water conditions. Rufous-sided Towhee (Pipila erythrophthalmus)

The land along the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee was also covered by a thick tangled forest of pond apple trees, which slowed the flow of water out of the lake. In addition, the thick vegetation, predominantly sawgrass, further slowed the flow of water. It has been estimated that a drop of water falling near the upper end of the system might reach the Gulf of Mexico a year later.

Although timeless is often one of the adjectives that come to mind when you look out across the green and gold sea of sawgrass, it inaccurately describes this relatively young land. Ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, and when Paleolithic Indians are first thought to have entered the Florida peninsula, Florida was mostly a dry, arid land.

With huge amounts of the world's water locked up in the earth's glaciers, the exposed portion of the Florida peninsula was roughly twice the size it is today. A porous layer of limestone rock held little surface water.

As the climate began to warm and the glaciers retreated, sea levels rose. The peninsula shrank, and underground aquifers, hemmed in by the seas, began to fill. With nowhere else to go, the water could only flow slowly across the mostly flat surface. Wetlands and cypress swamps soon began to develop in South Florida, and sometime around 5,000 years ago the Everglades began to form.

Paleolithic Indians adapted their culture to the changing climate. They learned to hunt alligators and deer, and to rely on the bountiful sea life close at hand. When Europeans first arrived in Florida in the 1500s, they encountered well-developed civilizations. The Calusa lived along the southwestern Florida coast, and the Tequestas along the southeast. By the mid-1700s, European contact, which included both diseases and slave raids, had led to the near extinction of both tribes.

Bands of Creek Indians, collectively known as Seminoles, fleeing first pioneer settlement, and then harassment by the United States Army, were next to arrive in the region. They named the land Pah-hay-okee (grassy water), and quickly learned to live and thrive in the harsh environment. By the late 1800s only a few hundred of these brave people survived in the Everglades; their descendants live here today.

The story of the modern Everglades era more or less began when a late nineteenth century canal builder and land speculator named Hamilton Disston inherited enough money to pursue his long-held dream of draining Florida's swamplands. It was an idea he picked up years earlier while on a fishing trip in Florida. There was a prize for such an endeavor—some of the richest farmland in the world, land the state would gladly give away to anyone who could drain it and put it to "good" use.

Thousands of generations of sawgrass living and dying in the Florida sun had deposited a thick layer of black muck, more than 15 feet deep in some places. Combined with the warm climate, the rich organic soil could grow multiple crops year after year.

Disston's plan was to drain all of the land north of Lake Okeechobee into the lake, then lower the lake by dredging canals to the east and west coasts of Florida, cutting off the flow of water to the Everglades. One of his first acts was to dredge the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers and connect it to Lake Okeechobee. This opened up a waterway from the southwest coast, through Lake Okeechobee, and on into the Kissimmee Valley. In 1882, a company-owned steamboat made the first trip from Fort Myers to the Kissimmee River.

After Disston abandoned the scene, his dreams largely unfulfilled, the State of Florida continued to stumble forward with one drainage project after another, always determined to turn what it perceived as a wasteland into viable agricultural lands. By the early 1900s, 440 miles of canals had been dug for drainage and to provide transportation to the inaccessible Florida interior.

It was about that time that Ross Winne brought his family from Ohio to their Everglades homestead. They rode a steamboat from Fort Myers up the winding Caloosahatchee River and into Lake Okeechobee. The family of three landed on Torry Island and settled in a 10-by-10 tent, next to a creek today known as Winne Creek, and on the shore of a small cove called Winne Cove. The rich lands that would later spawn an agricultural boom still lay hidden beneath the sawgrass and pond apple forest south of the lake.

Ross became one of a number of commercial catfish fishermen scattered around Lake Okeechobee during the early part of the twentieth century. Catfish were caught on trot lines and kept alive in wire pens until a run-boat came along to buy them or trade for supplies.

When the North New River Canal was opened in 1912 connecting Lake Okeechobee to Fort Lauderdale, it fell to Ross Winne, who had experience in the coastal waters, to pilot the first load of catfish down the 56-mile-long canal to the Miami fish docks.

While Ross fished, Gertrude Winne grew a vegetable garden in the muck around their homestead. As the story is told, land speculators brought prospective buyers to see her garden and the bountiful harvest that could be produced in the rich soil.

By 1928, Ross was the local sheriff and agricultural agent for a growing farming community centered around the small town of Belle Glade. The low, state-built dike that failed to hold back the hurricane-driven lake waters that year had been thrown-up to protect the farmlands from the natural sheet flow, not hurricanes.

Construction continued for decades following the great storm. Today a hurricane-proof dike surrounds Lake Okeechobee while more than 1,000 miles of canals crisscross the state, moving water back and forth with the help of 150 water-control structures and 16 major pumping stations. A 700,000-acre swath of farmland, known as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), now exists below Lake Okeechobee where Everglades once existed.

Although once known for its winter vegetable production, the EAA is today largely dominated by a politically strong sugar-producing industry. The rapid expansion of sugarcane as a crop of choice came about because of federally supported sugar subsidies that guarantee a profitable price for the growers and producers.

In addition, a levee was built along the eastern edge of the Everglades to protect advancing urban development from flooding. Three state-owned water conservation areas south of the current agricultural area covering 1,300 square miles of Everglades were enclosed by levees so water could be stored for times of drought.

Lost forever, however, was the natural water delivery system. Instead, a water system that was designed to protect agriculture and urban development at the expense of the natural ecosystem continues to take its toll. Rain falling in the historic watershed that once guaranteed an extended wet season is now carried away by canal in the name of flood protection and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Even under the best of conditions the Everglades were, and still are, treated to shorter wet seasons and longer dry seasons. In addition, increased nutrient runoff from agricultural operations has changed the native vegetation. Bull rushes (cattails) are undergoing rapid expansion in the place of sawgrass in the conservation areas.

At the same time an ongoing controversy has been waging for decades between conservationists, Native American Tribes, the State of Florida, and the sugar farming industry over such questions as Who is responsible for polluting the Everglades? Who should pay to restore the Everglades? Who should get the water during droughts? And who should have to take the water during floods? Many conservation organizations believe that agricultural lands should no longer be protected from either drought or flood when the alternative, either excessively flooding the Everglades, or diverting badly needed water for irrigation, is so devastating to native habitats and wildlife.

The only remaining natural Everglades system is now found mostly within the boundaries of Everglades National Park. Once a portion of the water is finally allowed to enter the northern boundary of the park through a system of culverts, it spreads out and reverts to the natural sheet flow that once characterized the entire Everglades.

Clearly though, except for its ability to protect farming interests, the system isn't working. During severe droughts in the early 1960s, the park's water supply was cut off, and disaster was only averted with the timely arrival of drought-breaking rains. In the 1970s, flood waters that threatened urban and agricultural areas were pumped into the Everglades conservation areas, drowning deer and other wildlife. By the early 1990s, without its normal freshwater input, Florida Bay at the end of the system began a gradual transition from pristine estuary to a hypersaline saltwater lagoon.

Although urban growth and agricultural pressures continue into the twenty-first century, the Everglades isn't defenseless. Efforts to preserve a portion of the ecosystem began in the early 1900s. The conservation movement was permanently galvanized, however, when Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her famous treatise. The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947 (revised 1987). Of the book, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote, "This beautiful and bitter, sweet and savage book may be recommended not only to all residents and tourists of Florida, but to all readers concerned with American life and the great relations of man to nature."

Born in 1890 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Marjory Stoneman Douglas arrived in Miami in 1915 and began working at the Miami Herald. Beginning as a society reporter, then an editorial page columnist, she campaigned for yet-to-be popular causes such as feminism, racial justice, and conservation.

Her book, published the same year that Everglades National Park was established, has for decades convinced people who have never seen the Everglades of the importance of its preservation. In 1970 Marjory Stoneman Douglas established the Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit organization supporting protection of the river of grass. Today, the Everglades Coalition, a broad-based union of more than 30 state and national conservation and environmental organizations, is working for the land's protection and eventual restoration. But it remains a difficult task.

In 1993 a controversial settlement of litigation took place between the U.S. government, the State of Florida, and the sugar industry that addressed the discharge of polluted water into Everglades National Park. That was followed in 1994 when the Florida legislature took up the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Forever Act.

Despite its title, the act was roundly criticized by environmental organizations which claimed that lobbying efforts by the sugar industry had successfully weakened the act to the point that is was an actual setback in the efforts to restore the Everglades. A feisty, 104-year-old Ms. Douglas, disappointed by changes made to the original legislation that she supported, demanded that her name be removed from the legislation before its final passage. It was.

In 1997 the United States Congress passed legislation designating Everglades National Park as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness. In 1998, Marjory Stoneman Douglas died in her Coconut Grove home at the age of 108, but the struggle she began to restore this remarkable natural resource continues.

The latest effort to confront and accommodate the continuing pressures on the system is the development of a comprehensive multibillion-dollar plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, environmentalists, and water managers that is designed to lead to the creation of a healthier, more natural Everglades and at the same time meet the long-term water demands of Central and South Florida's booming human population.

The redesign effort is expected to be the most complex ecological project ever undertaken. Engineers would build 286 square miles of reservoirs and filter marshes on all sides of Lake Okeechobee and along the eastern boundaries of the Everglades. The reservoirs would store up to 465 billion gallons of water, which otherwise would flow into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. During rainy years, hundreds of storage wells would also be used to hold additional billions of gallons for use during dry seasons to create a more natural wet/dry season.

Some environmentalists believe the survival of the Everglades, as well as South and Central Florida's quality of life, depends on the success of the proposal. Others think it still leaves too many areas of the Everglades susceptible to excessive water or excessive droughts. Only time will tell who is right, and whether or not future generations will be able to visit this unique and magnificent land.

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Published (print): 1999, Published (Web): January 2003, ISBN: 1-56352-543-7
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