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An alligator floats by in a pool of water near the observation tower at the Shark Valley visitor center in the Everglades National Park.
[Times photo: Brian Baer]

From the past, this present


© St. Petersburg Times, published Dec. 7, 1997

Whe Everglades is a wild place and a tame place, a place wet and dry, a place that catches fire and floods. There are no mountains or canyons, but there is water both salt and fresh, teeming with alligators and crocodiles and manatees and fish that jump high and swim deep.

The Everglades is crisscrossed by modern roads and unpaved ones with yawning potholes wide as moon craters. Tourists write checks at gift shops all the while oblivious to panthers and bears, deer and hogs, apple snails and zebra longwing butterflies, great blue herons and swallow-tailed kites.

A deer stands in the saw grass of the Big Cypress swamp.
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Some Everglades birds are drab and gray; others, such as the painted bunting, are a rainbow miracle. The mud sucks at your boots in the swamps and smells to high-heavens in the mangroves at low tide. Oysters cut your fingers as you shuck them, and your shirt clings to your back in the Venusian humidity as mosquitoes boil around you waiting to probe tender flesh. In a freeze, the leaves fall off the mahoganies and the gumbo limbos and the sky is the color of a bluebird.

The Everglades has been home to dreamers and schemers, honky tonk angels and drug smugglers. Its heroes include Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the aristocratic grande dame, and Clyde Butcher, the down-to-earth photographer laureate. Its rascals include Bloody Ed Watson, a murderer who was gunned down himself, and Totch Brown the unapologetic poacher of many an alligator. Seminole and Miccosukee Indians still dwell in the deep swamp, trusting few outsiders. Long-haired country boys live there, too, in abandoned school buses and tar-paper shacks decorated with Confederate flags and protected by pit bulls and Misters Smith and Wesson.

The Everglades is a swamp-gas stink, a balmy breeze, a cottonmouth snake, a ghost orchid, a rusty beer can, a bullet-riddled sign, and the way the soft light falls upon the cabbage palms at sunset of a cold December day.

The Everglades is a poem, our Mona Lisa, the wild heart of Florida.

In 1947, Harry Truman came down to Everglades City and opened the new Everglades National Park, which protected the southernmost slice of a great system that begins south of Orlando and flows south along the Kissimmee River, through Lake Okeechobee, down the Shark Valley Slough and, finally, Florida Bay.

Saturday, when the federal government celebrated the park's 50th anniversary, Vice President Al Gore was the keynote speaker. "I want to say happy birthday Everglades," he said. He was accompanied by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and EPA Director Carol Browner, Sen. Bob Graham and Gov. Lawton Chiles. They all said the right things, the expected things, about a national treasure that has been both fragile and tough.

Many among the crowd of a thousand spectators kept searching the podium for a tiny, frail woman wearing her trademark straw hat. But Marjory Stoneman Douglas, now 107, stayed home in Miami to rest. She put this place on the map a half century ago with her bible, Everglades: River of Grass. Now she sleeps most of the time, and her friends say she has been hanging on just for this day. Does she dream of a restored Everglades?

Early Saturday, before sunrise, barred owls hooted and whippoorwills trilled and it was easy to wonder if they were calling Mrs. Douglas. White ibis -- the old-timers called them "Chokoloskee chickens" -- fed among the mangroves. Mrs. Douglas would have enjoyed the attention. She also would have remained cautious in her optimism. She learned never to count her chickens, Chokoloskee or otherwise, before they hatched.

Efforts to save the Everglades, she knows, are only a recent phenomenon. For most of the last two centuries the Everglades was considered a useless swamp inconvenient to civilization and to commerce. In 1947, the year the park opened, the federal and state government began the draining in earnest after a series of tropical storms flooded South Florida. More than 1,400 miles of canals were dug south of Lake Okeechobee to divert into the sea all the water unwanted by farmers and the growing coastal population. Now the state and the feds vow to undo the damage. It may cost $4-billion, and the money isn't in the bank.

Why are we trying to save the Everglades? Somebody asked an Everglades biologist named Ron Jones that question. "Because it's beautiful," he said, speaking for many. The Everglades also is home to 14 endangered species of animals, hundreds of plants found nowhere else, and is the water supply for 6-million South Floridians.

A man named Ernest Coe thought up the idea of Everglades National Park in the 1920s. He was one of those dreamer fellows, the kind that people find interesting and colorful at first but then begin to dread. He was tall and thin with blue eyes and a thatch of white, ibis-colored hair. A landscape architect, he was fascinated by the Everglades and fearful about its future.

He talked and lectured and cajoled and scolded about its importance to anyone who would listen. The National Park Service finally agreed in 1928, but the Depression hit and there was no money. It took two more decades, and by then, the Everglades was already suffering from abuse. Coe would have enjoyed Saturday's celebration, and he would have talked some ears off.

After the rededication at the little Everglades City Airport, Gore and his entourage boarded a boat and went out to see what the fuss was all about. Pelicans skimmed just over the water. Wakes from his boat routed up blue herons, which squawked in protest.
Gore's captain took the boat up Indian Pass, through a channel lined by mangrove islands. It was Bloody Watson and Totch Brown country. Watson, a farmer, used to kill his workers rather than pay them and was gunned down one September afternoon by the irritated menfolk of Chokoloskee. Totch Brown, who died last year, made his living killing alligators and smuggling marijuana. Totch, who grew up eating all manner of fish and fowl, might have brought along his trusty shotgun and knocked down a couple of Chokoloskee chickens, the white ibis, for the VP, even if those birds are now a threatened species.

Gore's trip into the 'glades, alas, turned out to be less of an adventure. He admired the mangroves, a yellow-crowned night heron, and a osprey sitting on a nest. His boat ventured too close, and the big bird of prey fled. But it returned a few moments later, clutching a meal in its talons.

"He's got a fish!" Gore cried. It was an unscripted moment, the kind that happens, again and again, in the Everglades. A few minutes later, back at the dock, Gore jumped into his Cadillac limousine and was gone, bound eventually for the urban wilderness of Washington, D.C.

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