The Great Everglades Endeavor

The first project started under the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan two decades ago, Picayune Strand State Forest provides hope that the swamp can heal—as long as we stay the course.

BY July 1, 2021
Photography by Zach Stovall

Once upon a time in Florida, a pair of brothers in the real estate business eyeballed the eastern Collier County wilderness and saw dollar signs.

Baltimore natives Leonard and Julius “Jack” Rosen descended on the Sunshine State in 1957, the year they founded Gulf American Land Corp. Their arrival coincided with the completion of I-75, opening the state’s west coast to the cold-weary, the curious and the charlatans.

The Rosens (who’d gotten their start peddling an anti-baldness tonic), marketed Southwest Florida as an everyman’s paradise. They laid plans for the world’s largest subdivision, the 112,000-acre Golden Gate Estates. The land was adjacent to the Everglades, much of it underwater. But, no matter. They (and the company that bought Gulf American Land Corp. post-bankruptcy) would take a cue from a century’s worth of predecessors and dig. They dredged four massive canals, flushing some 160 billion gallons of freshwater annually into the Ten Thousand Islands. They carved roads, 285 miles of them in the southern portion—the one we’re concerned with—at quarter-mile intervals. And then,  the whole thing went bust, leaving 17,000 landowners in the lurch and an ecosystem in ruins.

On a clear January afternoon, I’m standing at a dusty site next to the Faka Union Canal, the biggest of the four, surveying the mess that was left behind. An excavator scoops earth and deposits it into a truck bed. Along the banks are heaps of dirt—the same dirt that came out of the canals in the ’60s. The crew, under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is getting ready to put it back in. Irony, Florida style.

Progress has been slow for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)—the globe’s most complex effort of its kind—but an infusion of funds from federal and state governments in recent years is providing much-needed resources to move forward.

I’d arrived there to witness the canal plugging a few weeks after the 20th anniversary of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the world’s biggest, most complex ecological restoration. It involves 68 massive projects, including this one, across 18,000 miles, an area twice the size of New Jersey. Draining the ’Glades had devastated land, sea and everything in between. CERP reengineers the water’s flow using nature’s blueprint.

I had wanted a closer look at CERP and chose to focus on this spot, Southern Golden Gate Estates and the adjacent Belle Meade, now the Picayune Strand State Forest, the westernmost slice of the Everglades ecosystem. This is where our attempt to heal the land started. Picayune was the first of the 68 projects to turn dirt two decades ago. The 55,000-acre forest provides a look, in miniature, at how our predecessors tore apart the ’Glades; at how our present-day policymakers, engineers and ecologists are piecing it back together; and at how mind-numbingly complex the whole thing is.

Progress, it seems, has moved on geologic time. But, finally, in the last two years, federal and state lawmakers have committed record dollars to Everglades restoration. For Picayune, that meant an infusion of $32 million, part of the $7.4 billion the state and federal government will need to spend through 2030.

Ripping apart ecosystems is easy; putting them back together … well, come explore the Picayune Strand, and you’ll see what it takes.

My primary guide is Dr. Mike Duever, an ecologist who works with the two entities responsible for restoring the Everglades, South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s a fit, fast-moving 79-year-old, who has worked on the Picayune’s restoration since the beginning. He figures his whole career, including a stint at Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, prepared him for this undertaking. “It’s my baby,” he says of the project.

You need to understand a few environmental basics to understand Picayune’s restoration and that of the Everglades overall. Hang tight: I promise to give the CliffsNotes version.

1. Nature designed South Florida stormwater to move slowly south, like a wall of water gliding along the land, a phenomenon known as sheet flow. This allows: (a) Water to seep underground and replenish aquifers (Collier County uses nearly 70 million gallons of freshwater daily). (b) Plants and soil to soak up the excess nutrients and minerals rainwater carries—an important safeguard for water quality. (c) Freshwater sheet flow to barricade the shoreline against encroaching saltwater.

2. When excess freshwater flows unfettered to the coasts, it dilutes seawater and damages the delicate estuaries where many fish, mollusks and crustaceans get
their start.

3. Residential roads and old logging tramways mess up water’s movement nearly as badly as canals do. Because they’re slightly elevated, they act as dams. Consider U.S. 41, which sliced through the Everglades in the 1920s. Today, engineers are installing culverts and bridges to ensure water can move over the landscape, through the Everglades and into Florida Bay.

4. When you alter water, you kill the plants that are supposed to be in a habitat and invite in those that aren’t. At Picayune, plant invaders include cabbage palms, which marched in and multiplied. The thing about palm trees? They burn. In a dehydrated landscape, they burn a lot. Yeah, it’s a mess.

Picayune Strand State Forest was the first of the 68 CERP projects to start 20 years ago. The 55,000-acre forest illustrates how the Everglades were torn apart, and how people are now trying to piece the vital ecosystem back together. Ecologist Dr. Mike Duever (above) has been involved with Picayune restoration since the beginning.

Fixing the problems, in theory, is remarkably simple. That’s a point Stephen Baisden, the Picayune project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, stresses repeatedly over the phone one morning. “Really, all Everglades restoration boils down to is getting the quantity, quality, timing and the distribution of the water right,” he says. CERP is all about regulating the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay and all points in between to replicate—to the greatest extent possible—the way the system used to work. It’s only simple in theory.

At Picayune Strand, in addition to fixing the water’s flow, agencies have to track and kill invasive plants—largely on foot or by swamp buggy—across 55,000 acres. They need to coax the land back into a natural fire cycle, rather than the Armageddon-like blazes that periodically tear through. And finally, they want to make sure the water is clean as it flows toward conservation lands and coastal waters. The South Florida Water Management District intends to add a natural filter marsh comprised of toxin-absorbing plants.

We’ll start, though, with the heart of the project: restoring the water’s movement.

Duever and key project leaders from the South Florida Water Management District offer me a tour demonstrating restoration in action. Over the next few hours, the scope of the project becomes clear—and a bit awe-inspiring, especially when you consider this is one of 68.

Step 1: Level the roads.

Duever leads us through a thicket of dry, scratchy brush and scrambles up a dirt heap for visual effect. From his perch, he explains there are some 335 miles of bare dirt in Picayune—roads, tramways and other disturbed areas—that must be leveled to natural grade. He estimates that each road is about 160 feet wide; 260 feet for major roads. “It’s a ballpark, but it’s the order of magnitude that kind of blew me away. Think about it. There’s a road every quarter mile.” At the time of our tour, 75% of the roads and 93% of the logging trams had been leveled. In time, plants will fill in and erase evidence of their existence.

Step 2: Plug the canals.

We rumble across what’s left of the old roads to the Faka Union Canal. For all its destructive power, the canal is innocuous looking, a sleepy, brown ribbon stretching to the horizon. There’s not enough dirt to fully fill the 40 miles of canals dissecting the forest—a half century of erosion has whittled the spoil—so the Corps will make plugs at intervals of a quarter-mile. For the Faka Union, each 100-foot-long plug will require 300,000 cubic feet of material. At the time I visited last winter, the Corps had plugged about 18 miles of Picayune canals. By May, the filling of the “stair step” portion of the canal system, as Duever calls the area where the channels meet, would be wrapping up, and plugging of the Faka Union would follow right after.   

Step 3: Redirect the water.

Simply plugging a canal won’t restore sheet flow. In the forest’s north, along three canals, the Corps has erected three giant pump stations. Two of the canals start well north of the state land and keep Golden Gate Estates dry (CERP projects may not increase flood risk to homes and farms). The pump stations draw water from the open canals and push it across the plugged portions and leveled landscape. At the $66 million Merritt Pump Station, Crew Chief Eric Weston fires up the engines and, within minutes, water gushes over the grasses. Human-made sheet flow. A levee acts as a traffic cop, portioning it to the south, west and east. This is the movement Mother Nature intended.

The engineering is impressive. But replumbing the forest isn’t enough to bring back the plants that were supposed to populate it. The next big step: culling the invasives and other problematic plants.

The heart of the effort lies in rerouting freshwater to flow according to nature’s blueprint, where it can replenish aquifers and protect the shoreline from encroaching saltwater. In Picayune, that involves leveling 285 miles of roads, plugging some 40 miles of canals and using three giant pump stations to redirect the water.

Duever holds up an aerial photograph of Picayune. “It looks like a cornfield out there,” he says ruefully. “The palms are invading the grasslands, and the pinelands and the cypress are being burned up in the fires.” Cabbage palms may be native to Southwest Florida and historically present in the Picayune, but they aren’t supposed to dominate. They hate the wet, love the dry and burn like crazy by design (in a balanced ecosystem, they encourage fires that renew the land). Duever shows another image, the remnants of a 17,000-acre blaze. Charred palms were all that remained. 

The flames put residents at risk. Becky Newell has lived in Golden Gate Estates for 30 years, through major hurricanes like Wilma and Irma and countless smaller storms in between. “Through all of that, we never had to evacuate our house,” she tells me one afternoon. “The first time was 2017 for the Picayune fire. It just moved so quickly and grew so quickly.” Flames licked the canal banks, a quarter mile away. Helicopters circled. “There’s nothing you can do but get out of the way,” Newell says. A rainstorm helped extinguish the blaze, and Newell’s property went unscathed. But she’s wary. “My new mission is to scan and digitize everything and save it to the cloud,” she says of family photos. “This was eye-opening.”

And that is one reason why the invasive plants need to go.

On my tour, we spot a crew, herbicide tanks strapped to their backs, combing the forest. The budget for invasive removal is flush for the first time, and crews are venturing more deeply into the forest. The first targets are Brazilian pepper trees and invasive grasses, the latter of which need three years of treatments before they fizzle out. The pervasive palms will go last; if you topple them too soon, they’ll leave gaping holes that other undesirables will rush to fill. “We have to be strategic,” explains Ellen Allen, a senior scientist from South Florida Water Management District. She’s been battling with the plants since her arrival 15 years ago. Her work will continue long after engineers finish fixing the water’s flow.

In addition to water flow, crews contend with issues surrounding water quality and managing plants that are out of balance and have contributed to recent Armageddon-like fires.

Once the water is right and the plants are right, land managers can get the fire right with prescribed burns that help, rather than desecrate, the forest. 

There’s one last piece—an issue voiced so frequently in Southwest Florida these days that it’s almost a rallying cry. Is the water clean?

CERP did not require a water treatment system in Picayune, such as a filter marsh, to absorb pollutants. Residents and environmental groups pressed state officials to consider otherwise. Charlette Roman, chair of the Big Cypress Basin Board, a South Florida Water Management District subgroup, heeded their concerns. “Citizens care about the quality of water, not just about getting water,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Our red tides lately are on steroids,” Roman, also a Florida master naturalist, says. Nitrogen and phosphorus carried in rainwater contribute to the severity of a bloom. A former Marco Island city councilwoman, Roman remembers visiting a constituent’s home during an especially bad outbreak. “She had the windows closed, the doors closed, and you could still smell the dead fish.”

A 410-page feasibility study examining ways to treat the water was released last March.

What I really wanted to know: Are the efforts working?

Our party climbs aboard a swamp buggy destined for the fully restored portion of the forest to begin probing the answer to that question. The area is a harbinger of what’s to come in a few short years, if all goes right. Someone points out a bear print in the mud. A deer peers from the brush. The water deepens. It will take decades before the cypress stands reestablish, but for now, in this transitional phase, willow trees have emerged.

The project is restoring 55,000 acres of land, but the effects stretch well beyond that, east into Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and south into Everglades National Park.  Scientists regard the unrestored portions of Picayune Strand as a missing piece of an ecosystem puzzle; surrounding it are conserved lands such as Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Collier-Seminole State Park, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Picayune’s restoration connects 2.2 million acres of protected lands. 

I ask a couple of outside experts for their assessment to date, including Dr. Stephen Davis of The Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit research, education and advocacy group. He is optimistic.

“With this project and with other projects that are far along… we’re getting, at a minimum, the benefits we anticipated—even before their completion,” Davis, a senior ecologist with the nonprofit, says. Groundwater levels are up, habitats improved and salinity levels along the coast are more stable.

The data, however, is nuanced and, in some cases, inadequate. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which conducts biannual reviews of CERP’s progress, urged agencies to implement a more robust monitoring of the restoration’s impact. The most recent report, issued last March, bluntly stated that “important opportunities for learning from monitoring at Picayune Strand are being missed that could inform current and future project management decisions” across multiple Everglades restoration projects.

That’s a concern echoed by Dr. Shawn Clem, director of research at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, who is among the scientists studying restoration’s effects at Picayune Strand. “In general, monitoring needs more attention,” she says. “If you look at the cost of monitoring compared to the cost of earth moving, it’s a small cost compared to the benefit.”

Though there’s an estimated four years’ worth of work left in Picayune, Dr. Stephen Davis, a senior ecologist with The Everglades Foundation, says anticipated benefits are already apparent: Groundwater levels are up, habitats have improved and salinity levels are more stable along the coast.

Her own 2020 study, co-authored with researchers from Johnson Engineering and Florida Gulf Coast University, noted extension of the hydroperiods (the number of days per year that the water table is at or above ground level) in cypress and graminoid (grass) habitats but not in pine sites. Samples of aquatic macroinvertebrates (critters like snails and sponges) suggest some formerly dry areas had reverted to wetlands, supporting a rich array of species. Their research found that treefrogs—another species used to judge the health of an ecosystem—are abundant in Picayune, though that finding is complicated by the increased presence of Cuban treefrogs. Duever had remarked on that, too: The exotic frogs appear to be displacing the native ones. 

The lack of certainty doesn’t surprise me all that much—Duever had repeatedly referred me to a map of Picayune; the fully restored area is limited to the northeastern corner along the plugged Prairie and Merritt Canals. We won’t have a full grasp of the ecological benefits until the project is complete. Still to come: the construction of a seven-mile levee to protect an adjacent farm, and the remaining canals plugged, roads leveled and culverts installed. In all, there is four more years’ worth of work to go, the Army Corps estimates.

But if there’s something disheartening about the Picayune restoration—and that of CERP in its entirety—it’s that I can’t share more extensive results. CERP was supposed to have been a 30-year project. Twenty years and some $6 billion in, and the work is nowhere complete. 

“[Picayune] was a first-generation CERP project and the first one to break ground,” Marisa Carrozzo, the Everglades and water policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, says. “But it’s not going to be the first one completed. It highlights the starts and stops of Everglades restoration that happen when funding isn’t consistent and when resources become scarce.”

Two of the three multimillion-dollar Picayune pump stations sit idle. Engineers can’t fire them up until their respective canals are plugged. The task isn’t finished because the money hasn’t been there, along with other, slow-moving bureaucratic tie-ups.

But not long after my visit, the Biden Administration included Everglades restoration in its $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged $473 million for Everglades restoration, despite pandemic belt-tightening. That makes me hopeful that money will flow, and the water will soon, too.

As we drive through the forest, I ask Duever why he soldiers on.

“Every place I’ve gone, what I’ve tried to do is help protect, preserve and restore natural areas,” he says. “My wife, when I first met her, she asked me what’s my goal in life and what do I want people to think when I’m dead? I want to leave as much land in as good shape as I can.”

Duever adds, “After all these years of effort, it’s going the way it should go, and it’s almost there.”

Fully restored sections of the forest show promise of what’s to come—and what’s possible for the rest of the Everglades.

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