July 25, 2014

The Good News About the Everglades

Everglades (R.J. Wiley)The everglades territory is remote, daunting, unwieldy, foreboding even. You can drive along any of its sandy and limestone gravel roads, get out of your vehicle, walk 100 feet into the wilderness and be completely lost.

You could say the same thing about Everglades restoration, which despite grand intentions has devolved into a series of piecemeal attempts to rein in a century of environmental abuse.

Florida and the federal government set aside nearly $8 billion for a comprehensive Everglades restoration effort in 2000. The original plan called for most of the work to be completed by 2006.

Since then, the warm-and-fuzzy environmental preservation attitude of the boom times has gone the way of the housing market. Florida Forever, the largest public land purchasing and preservation effort of its kind, alone has secured more than 2.5 million acres for preservation and restoration since 1990. Years ago, annual budgets to buy land from willing sellers was upwards of $300 million. Now, after major funding cuts, only about $5 million a year remains.

In June of 2008, former Gov. Charlie Crist approved a $1.3 billion purchase of 187,000 acres owned by the United State Sugar Corp. The plan was to restore the land and give the Everglades a major boost in water quality and quantity. By August of 2010, with Gov. Rick Scott in charge, the project was slashed to $197 million for less than 27,000 acres.

On some levels, the largest ecosystem restoration project in human history seems to have stalled. But there are still people out there willing to believe things can change and who remember just how far we’ve come. To them, the war isn’t lost. And while we haven’t made as much progress as we hoped for 10 years ago, there are positives to report.

 

“When I started hanging out in Big Cypress, I just fell in love with it.” Ed Carlson, director of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (R.J. Wiley)A Swamp-Half-Full Guy

Ed Carlson was born into Everglades lore. A Miami native and graduate of the University of South Florida, Carlson spent many of his teenage days wading through the swamps of south Florida. Now 62 and the long-time director of Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Carlson has a unique perspective on an ecology he’s studied, worked and lived in for most of his life.

“It was like the Wild West,” Carlson remembers. “I didn’t really do any exploring in the Everglades until I was 17 years old in the 1960s. There were 600 hunting camps out there, swamp buggies driving everywhere, there were bars out there serving beer.”

From those early environmental days sprouted careers for land managers like Carlson.

“When I started hanging out in Big Cypress I just fell in love with it,” Carlson remembers. “I camped at Burns Lake east of Ochopee, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. We hiked along 29 and had heard about Immokalee. And we saw a sign that said Corkscrew Swamp and we went and visited it.”

That was his first trip to Corkscrew Swamp. It was an adventure that would change his life.

He was working at Corkscrew Swamp when President Richard Nixon announced that a proposed jetport six miles north of Everglades National Park wasn’t happening and that in its place a preserve would be established in Big Cypress. Like a lot of over-the-top projects in Florida’s history, the jetport was planned to be bigger than JFK, O’Hare, Dulles and LAX airports combined.

From that environmental victory came federal laws that protected much of the wild Everglades from the illegal hunting, drug running and ecological destruction that had plagued south Florida for generations.

“That was one of the biggest environmental victories,” Carlson says. “Once the federal regulations came in, that got rid of most of the people (living in the hundreds of makeshift camps) because they were squatters.”

Carlson, ever the diplomat, focuses on the positives in his world. Sure, there have been losses along the way. But at the same time he’s found a career and built a life doing and being what he loves. He doesn’t have those rose-tinted glasses about a pristine Everglades. He remembers the Everglades perhaps at its worst—when federal and even state officials knew relatively little about what actually transpired in the ’Glades.

The regulations and establishment of preserves and wildlife refuge areas gave jobs to environmental-minded scientists like Carlson. He thinks before answering questions, always looking to the positives and leaving the rest behind.

“In my world, there’s a project called the CREW Land and Water Trust and they have been buying the watershed land around Corkscrew,” Carlson says. “They’re buying 26,000 acres surrounding us, and Water Management District employees are managing the land. The other positive thing is the restoration of Picayune Strand. That’s huge.”

 

Pristine plot: As restoration in the Everglades goes forward, the goal is to make more of it look like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and less like canal-riddled  Southern Golden Gate Estates. (R.J. Wiley)A Lake Restored

It’s a quiet morning at the west end of Lake Trafford Road in Immokalee.

White ibises feed next to glossy ibises, herons line the shores and fill the air. Cormorants and anhingas stretch their massive wings while perched on dead tree branches. These birds hunt under water, diving below the surface and chasing schools of hand-sized baitfish.

Alligators are everywhere, from tiny yearlings chirping in the grasses to adults as long as a station wagon.

Edward “Ski” Olesky wipes the morning dew off the seats of one of the airboats in his touring fleet. With his home fishery suffering, Olesky has turned largely to tours to help pay the bills.

Olesky first fished here in the 1960s, and started buying up ownership of Lake Trafford Marina about a decade later. Olesky, now 69, and his late wife, Ann, dreamed of big-money largemouth bass tournaments. Historically, Lake Trafford is a world-class fishery both for beastly largemouth bass and tremendous black crappie fishing during the winter months.

Several touring bass tournaments were sprouting and growing in the 1970s, paving the way for today’s billion-dollar bass fishing industry. The Oleskys wanted Trafford to compete with some of the best lakes in the state of Florida and the nation. They wanted Trafford to be a part of what has become a nationwide, traveling fishing circuit with millionaire anglers.

Things seemed promising, but over the years the lake started showing signs of pollution. As agricultural operations grew in size and number during the 1970s and ’80s, more and more nutrients and fertilizers leaked into the lake. By the early 1990s the notorious bass fishery had shrunk due to loss of spawning grounds. Fed by run-off pollutants, hydrilla exploded in the lake, covering the areas bass have used for centuries to lay eggs and protect their young.

The hydrilla bloomed and died in a cycle that produced an unnatural muck to form on the lake bottom, upwards of 6 feet deep in places. That muck fueled algae blooms, which in turn sucked most of the dissolved oxygen from the water. Fish actually drown.

“We had a big fish kill and it really, really hurt our business,” says Olesky. “We finally got everybody involved and Ann spoke in public and we got money for the restoration.”

The Oleskys and the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce started a grassroots movement to revive the lake, and state and federal restoration funds were approved in 1996.

Set to break ground in 2001, the restoration was plagued with delays from over-budget engineering bids to hurricanes and droughts. The final tally: six million cubic feet of muck removed at a cost of $21 million.

Olesky says he’s optimistic that the lake won’t suffer the same fate again anytime soon. “We’ve had enough support that I believe they don’t want it to die,” Olesky says while sitting on the marina dock on a breezy afternoon. “The commitment will be there.”

 

Time warp: The Fakahatchee Strand will continue to return to its original state as canals in Southern Golden Gate Estates that once pulled water away from the area are filled in. (Jeff Ripple)Slowing of Decay

South Florida’s history is long on broken commitments. From the Calusa to Seminole, from early squatters to European swampland scheme victims, broken promises seem to be the norm, especially when it comes to the ecology.

Jeff Ripple grew up in Fort Lauderdale and visits the Big Cypress area often to photograph, paint, visit friends and attend art shows. Now 48, Ripple remembers a south Florida environment drastically different from today’s mega-urban East Coast.

“There were still little remnants of hammocks and woods intermixed even in the apartment complexes where I grew up. I was always fishing, catching lizards. I was always outside, to the point that my parents were concerned I was fishing too much.”

A successful self-taught landscape photographer and painter, Ripple started his photo career in 1989.

“I started reading all about the wildlife to try to understand what I was shooting,” Ripple says. “I started reading more about the Glades and going to Water Management District meetings and going to Audubon in Palm Beach. I was speaking my piece and reading everything I could.”

He tried to reason with other residents, pointing out that wetlands need water in order to recharge our drinking water aquifers. If water flows off the land too quickly it doesn’t have time to seep through the ground layers and into the aquifers most people in south Florida rely on for clean drinking water. So if the wetlands dry up, so will faucets, showers and toilets.

Admittedly, he’s a bit jaded after decades of wins, losses and little actual change.

“Here we are 20 years later and it seems the same problems are in place. Part of me is grateful for the housing downturn. We slowed down the destruction to some point. But we’re so short-sighted. It’s always boom and bust, boom and bust. The quality of life in this state is directly related to the quality of our environment.”

Ripple has largely made his career out of capturing south Florida wild landscapes. His photographs have documented some of the last pristine areas in the state, and he hopes to keep working in the wilderness next to his childhood home.

“I’m essentially a realist, but I really tend to hope a lot,” Ripple says. “I think nature in Florida is resilient. It will find a way to succeed one way or another.”

 

Five places to experience the Everglades

Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
fl.audubon.org

Big Cypress National Preserve
nps.gov/bicy

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
rookerybay.org

Everglades National Park,

Shark Valley
nps.gov/ever

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
fws.gov/floridapanther

 

Five ways to experience the Everglades

Canoe the Turner River
nps.gov/ever

Hike Loop Road 
nps.gov/bicy

Drive through Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
floridastateparks.org

Airboat the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation
billieswamp.com

Birding at CREW
crewtrust.org

 

SOUTHERN GOLDEN GATES ESTATESSOUTHERN GOLDEN GATES ESTATES: “WE ARE STARTING TO SEE PROGRESS.”

Picayune strand is huge, literally and figuratively.

And you can't talk about Picayune Strand State Forest without bringing up Southern Golden Gate Estates. Logged in the 1940s and ‘50s, about 55,000 acres were assembled for development by the Gulf American Corporation, owned by the Rosen family, in the 1960s. Some 17,000 families purchased “swampland in Florida.” A vast network of roads and canals were built in an urban grid fashion.

Planned as the largest residential development in America at the time, the project eventually went bankrupt, mostly because the development was in a swamp that flooded often. Very few homes were ever built in Southern Golden Gate Estates, and by the 1990s the area was a relatively lawless, isolated community of quasi-hermits and redneck encampments.

For the past decade-plus the Southern Golden Gate Estates has looked like one of those fantasy TV shows that talks about Earth after humans. The roads have decayed to rubble, some of them washed away during summer floods. Riddled with bullet holes, stop signs sway in the afternoon breeze, the rusty metals screeching like an old ceiling fan.

In 1983, a group of environmentally conscious biologists and activists started a push to purchase the lands and restore it, as close as possible, to its original state.

Today the Picayune Strand plan is part of state and federal plans to restore the Everglades, which calls for leaving some of the roads to allow recreation activities, although parts of the Strand would only be accessible by foot. According to state management plans, the roads will be reduced from 300 miles to about 50.

Like all facets of the Everglades, nothing is independent. Restoring water flows and habitat in Picayune Strand will allow water to flow slowly through pollution-cleansing flora instead of pulsing quickly through man-made canals.

Slower freshwater flow over wetlands also gives it a better chance to replenish and recharge our strained and vulnerable drinking water aquifers.

Progress is being made, but like anything involving Everglades restoration, the work is slow, says Andrew McElwaine, CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. One major canal has been taken offline and another is getting closer to being filled in, once giant pumps are put in place to prevent flooding in the inhabited parts of the Estates.

“There’s a lot left to be done,” McElwaine says. “It’s a long-term project and there’s very little money in the budget. … Still, we are starting to see progress, staring to see wildlife come back.”

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