The Everglades: Saving Floridas river of grass

Members of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) were selling T-shirts at the Bailey General Store on this barrier island along Florida’s Gulf coast a few days before Earth Day, April 22.

In observance of Earth Day this year, a coalition of virtually every mainstream environmental organization in the nation released a joint statement assailing George W. Bush’s “horrific record” of pandering to corporate polluters in undermining laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That anger extends to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Water for life” is the slogan on the SCCF T-shirts. Our recent vacation on this semi-tropical isle brought home why clean water is key to protecting what is left of Florida’s wilderness from agribusiness and real estate developers. It is an uphill fight, with South Florida’s population slated to grow by three million by 2020 and luxury condos and golf courses sprouting like mushrooms across the state.

All about us on Sanibel were the results of preservation efforts by the SCCF. Their marine lab is working to save the manatees, sea turtles, wading birds, coral reefs, and other marine life. Since it was founded in 1967, SCCF has purchased 1,810 acres of freshwater wetlands where endangered wading birds nest. More than 50,000 people participate each year in SCCF conservation activities.

The crown jewel of conservation here is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a mangrove forest that stretches for miles along the bay side of Sanibel Island. While we were there, snowy egrets in their magnificent mating plumage were caring for their recently hatched chicks in the tops of the mangroves or wading in the tide flats hunting for crayfish. Great blue herons, cormorants and brown pelicans teemed in the tidal wetlands. Osprey perched on high branches or swooped over the sparkling waters to catch a silvery mullet in their talons. I did a painting of a snowy egret wading among the mangroves. As I worked, an inquisitive cattle egret, comical in her boldness, sidled up to examine my handiwork.

All of this natural wonder is put in jeopardy by a bill Jeb Bush and the sugar barons are railroading through the Florida legislature that would postpone by 20 years the timetable for cleaning up the nearby Everglades.

That timetable is contained in the landmark $8.4 billion Everglades Protection and Restoration Act signed by President Clinton in 2000.

Conservationist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at age 108, called the Everglades “a river of grass” 60 miles wide. Conservationists say two-thirds of the Everglades has been drained or converted to farmland or real estate. What is left now hangs in the balance.

Among the Protection and Restoration Act’s requirements is a sharp reduction of phosphates from groundwater that flows from sugar plantations through the Everglades. Elevated phosphates are causing a rapid invasion of non-native cattails into the Everglades, wiping out the sawgrass that is the main native vegetation. Another major component of the law seeks to alter the canals that flush 1.7 billion gallons of fresh water each day from Florida’s interior into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. The idea is to use that fresh water to restore the flow through the Everglades, which over the past century has lost 70 percent of its water.

Conservationists say Jeb Bush’s postponement would jeopardize the $4 billion in federal matching funds for the restoration project.

“I just wrote Gov. Bush today to tell him the Everglades don’t have another 20 years,” SCCF Education Director Christy Anders told me. Noting that Sanibel and Captiva are at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River which flows out of Lake Okeechobee, she said, “We are downstream. It does affect us.”

“I have been watching how fast things are declining,” Anders said. “I taught marine science down in the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. Now they are dying because of degraded water quality. I have watched the decline in species diversity. It used to be you could see wading birds, hundreds at a time when you drove across Route 41 through the Everglades. I used to count the kestrels (tiny hawks) perched on the power lines along Route 41. It has been five years since I saw a kestrel. I am reading a wonderful book titled ‘Everglades: Buffalo Tiger and the River of Grass,’ by Peter Lourie. Buffalo Tiger was the chief of the Miccosukee Indians who led the charge to save the Everglades. He says he will never eat fish caught in the Everglades because they are so badly contaminated.”

In fact, mercury levels in Everglades fish are twice the level considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration. “I think there is still time to turn things around,” Anders said. “But the Everglades can’t wait 20 years. It is one reason I focus on educating adults. We don’t have time to educate another generation. We have to go to those who vote and can change things today.”

Tim Wheeler is editor of the People’s Weekly World. He can be reached at