A soggy, noisy, riveting place

The Everglades still impresses, but its abundance of species is dwindling

September 02, 2007|By Bob Downing | Bob Downing,Akron Beacon Journal

FLORIDA CITY, Fla. -- The Everglades can be a surprisingly noisy place.

There were the strange, catlike sounds from the small heron sitting in a tree. Earthshaking burps could be heard from unseen Southern bullfrogs or pig frogs. There was an occasional roar that we knew came from, yes, the dark-colored alligators along the Anhinga Trail. Some were sunning themselves, and some were swimming in the freshwater pools.

Everglades National Park is a big, flat, swampy and often buggy place. It covers 1.5 million acres at the southern tip of Florida, only an hour from downtown Miami.

The exotic waterscape is a soggy terrestrial park. It features a subtle landscape with open grassy vistas, strange rocky pinelands and dense islands of hardwoods. The park is a rich and diverse biological preserve.

Everglades is not an easy place to know or love. It can be inhospitable, a less-than-glamorous vacation spot, as well as home to killer mosquitoes and smothering summer humidity and rains.

The area is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the country's third-largest national park in the lower 48 states, behind Death Valley and Yellowstone.

It was created in 1947 to save a portion of the threatened Everglades.

The park gets about 1.5 million visitors a year, mostly in the drier, cooler winter months. Yet it remains the most-threatened American national park.

It is a place filled with more than 10,000 freshwater-loving alligators and a few hundred saltwater-loving crocodiles, along with deer, black bears, dolphins, manatees, sharks, snakes, turtles and the seldom-seen Florida panther, an endangered species.

Colorful birds abound, many long-legged waders: pelicans, egrets, cranes, herons, ibises, flamingos, roseate spoonbills, storks, frigate birds, kites, skimmers, hawks, eagles and the ever-present black vultures.

The Calusa Indians called it "Pa-hay-okee," or the land of grassy water. It is a land of saw-grass prairies, freshwater sloughs, scrub prairies, cypress swamps, mangrove thickets, saltwater lakes, miniature forests, brackish estuaries and sandy beaches. Lush tree islands with pines, mangroves and mahogany trees thrive on limestone mounds.

The Everglades is home to 1,000 species of plants, 350 bird species, 200 fish species and 120 tree species. It is also under attack from invasive species of plants and animals.

Known for its stunning sunsets, the Everglades is the largest saw-grass prairie in North America, the largest mangrove swamp in the Western Hemisphere and the largest designated wilderness in the southeastern United States.

It is home to 14 threatened or endangered species and the largest breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America.

The Everglades is a designated World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance.

It is buffered by Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Yet the Everglades is a ghost of what it once was. It has shrunk by 50 percent, and its birds have declined by 90 percent since 1900. The extravagant abundance of species that once thrived in the Everglades is missing. Nonetheless, the Everglades is still an impressive place.

It is a fragile environment for a place so vital, so lively, so complex, so primeval, so sprawling.

Water is at the center of the Everglades' needs and threats to the park, which is distressed by a major drought.

The Everglades needs fresh water to survive and so, too, do the rapidly growing urban centers in south Florida and Florida's agribusiness.

Florida began in 1905 to drain the Everglades, deemed a "worthless swamp" by Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward.

The park's main natural feature is known as the River of Grass and was described in the 1940s by conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The giant south-flowing stream is 50 miles wide with 1 to 3 feet of water in its main slough but only 6 inches deep elsewhere. It flows a quarter-mile per day.

The water flow to the Everglades begins on winding Kissimmee River near Orlando. It then spills into Lake Okeechobee in central Florida before it empties into the River of Grass and continues flowing southward to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1996, Congress authorized a 30-year, $8.6 billion plan to return water in more natural patterns of quantity, timing and distribution throughout south Florida, although that restoration effort languishes.

There are really four Everglades to visit from three spread-out entrances:

Shark Valley, with tram rides through the saw grass to view birds and alligators in the northeast corner.

Ten Thousand Islands, with its mangrove estuary in the northwest.

The 38-mile road from Florida City to Flamingo, with its saw grass, cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks.

The Flamingo area, with its coastal prairies.

Flamingo, at the southern end of the park road, was settled in the late 1800s by fishermen, plume hunters and moonshiners.

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