The great swath of land called the Everglades never flooded before Europeans arrived. True, this 50-mile-wide, 100-mile-long section of Florida was dry in winter, then starting in spring covered with a foot or two of water. But it wasn’t flooded, in the sense that civilization means it. This was simply the way this land, most of which rests barely one good-sized alligator’s length above sea level, nourished and replenished itself.
And plenty grew there — the grass in this “river of grass,” copses of hardwoods, the cypress and mangrove swamps, all the way down to where the rivers and streams emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Everglades supported an amazing array of wildlife, wading birds especially but also other creatures found nowhere else on the continent in such abundance — gators, manatee and more.
But flooding was what the Americans who wanted to exploit Southern Florida called the phenomenon. They couldn’t pave it and construct buildings there if the ground was submerged half the year. Nor could they plant crops there, at least the crops they wanted. So starting in earnest about 75 years ago, they built a series of canals, dams and ditches to drain this land. People moved in, and the river of grass became lawns and orange groves and strip malls. Several millennia of natural processes were shoved aside and largely unmourned.
Starting in the 1990s, Florida began to realize that shunting millions of gallons of fresh water each day out to sea wasn’t necessarily a good idea. Now there is a 30-year, $11.9 billion plan to restore as much of the Everglades’ natural flow as possible.
The state is not yet very far along in this laudable and necessary project. (It covers 18,000 square miles, after all.) Visiting, you realize how much work lies before it. Drive either of the two east-west highways bisecting southernmost Florida, I-75 (Alligator Alley) and U.S. 41, and the whole hour-plus you’ll drive alongside a man-made ditch 10 feet or more wide. Much of the land beyond might look “untouched,” but such moats effectively keep the water from going where it’s supposed to, starving the ecosystem for nutrients and habitat.
Humanity’s crude handiwork is evident even in Everglades National Park. One of its more popular features is Shark Valley, about an hour west of Miami. It’s primarily a 14-mile paved loop that’s great for wildlife-watching year-round. That’s because even in the dry season, a ditch running the length of the outbound leg of the trail holds enough water to attract gators, wading birds, turtles and more.
Without this road — which started life in the 1940s as an oil company’s survey road — and its ditch, February here would turn up a paucity of wildlife. With it, it’s an unfenced zoo.
You’re not supposed to get within 10 feet of gators, by the way, though not a few people do. Just like they stop their cars along 41 to ogle the saurians lining the big roadside ditch. Only in such an unnatural place is it so easy for so many to get so close to nature.