Crocodiles, Alligators and Anhingas: Four Hours in the River of Grass and thoughts on the Civil War
"There are no other Everglades in the world.
They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free salt-ness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass."
— Marjory Stoneman Douglas, "The Everglades, River of Grass."
The Everglades are indeed a river of grass, but the vast water diversions to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro and the virtual dam of U.S. Highway 41, known here as the Tamiami Trail, which cuts east-west across the Everglades west of Miami, have cut the river off from its sources, Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River.
Today, I and a bus load of journos from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, along with National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and a slew of other NPS flat-hats, spent about five hours in Everglades National Park discussing its wildlife, its waters and its future.
First, the obvious: For anyone visiting the Everglades from the West, don't expect the breathtaking depths of the Grand Canyon or the spectacular peaks of Grand Teton. Everglades is about the biological diversity of a massive ecological transition zone and the wondrous immensity of a vast grassy plain of freshwater grasslands, sloughs, hammocks and bays. Hiking the Anhinga Trail today, the abundant wildlife (gators, gars, turtles, egrets, anhingas, warblers and wasps) made it feel like I was walking through an exhibit at a zoo, only in the Everglades, people didn't put the wildlife there.
A few facts: There could be between 5,000 and 140,000 invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. There are both alligators and American crocodiles in the Everglades, along with bears, panthers, poisonous trees, countless mangroves and bald cypresses and a virtual menagerie of charismatic megafauna.
Recognizing the harm the Tamiami Trail has done to the flow of water in the Everglades, the state is working on removing a one-mile stretch of U.S. 41, and replacing it with a bridge to allow water to flow beneath the highway. The bridge's critics claimed a few culverts would do, but here's what happens when you put culverts through the highway instead of elevating the highway itself:
In Jarvis' talk at Everglades about NPS' conservation and education efforts ("There's still support out there for conservation," he said), he said the agency is starting to re-tool how it educates the public about the Civil War. "The North won the war, but the South won the history," he said. "The Civil War still defines us as a country today."
Jarvis said the South turned its historical view of the cause of the Civil War into a discussion about states' rights. As the public's interest in the Civil War has waned over the decades, the NPS is taking the war's 150th anniversary as an opportunity to inform the public that slavery was central to that conflict, not states rights.