The quote in the headline about the Everglades being a test of our will to restore the Earth comes to mind as Everglades advocates gather in D.C. to try to give their cause some extra oomph at this time of tight government budgets. Today the Obama administration had some really good news for 'Glades campaigners: Some 5.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail will be raised to restore more-natural water flows into Everglades National Park.
It's a step that was called for waaaay back in the early 1990s when I broke a story on a group of federal scientists advising the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about what would constitute a credible stab at Everglades restoration. (1993 being the dim mists of antiquity, Web-wise, I can't find that news story or the report that inspired it. But I did locate a similar document from 1996 by the same "Everglades Science Subgroup" that advised the Corps. It's also discussed in a book by Judith Layzer.)
Since the early '90s, the effort to rescue the Everglades from agriculture and development has emerged as the biggest ecosystem-restoration project ever attempted on the planet. It's long been a rarity, an environmental issue that enjoys bipartisan support. It remains a cause for both sides of the aisle, with the two-day "Everglades Summit" that kicked off today co-chaired by, among others, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
The D.C. event is organized by the Everglades Foundation, a really interesting and deep-pocketed group with a board of directors that includes such well-known folks as Jimmy Buffett and Jack Nicklaus and also long-time if lesser-known 'Glades advocates such as Nathaniel Reed (who was also a high-ranking Interior Department official in the Nixon and Ford administrations).
Now, on to today's news: The Tamiami Trail is a special place to me because when I was very young my father would wake me before dawn some Saturday mornings so we could head west from Miami to fish along the Trail.
It's a two-lane road built to connect Tampa and Miami back in the 1920s, when the vast prairies of Everglades sawgrass were viewed as something of a wasteland. The road effectively dammed up the vast, shallow and gently undulating Everglades "river of grass" at the exact place where it enters Everglades National Park.
The road has caused massive disruption of water flows, drying out some spots and drowning others below the massive S-12 water gates where the flows are diverted.
Every time I'd driven between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and seen the many miles of elevated highway there, I've wondered how long it would take to pay the Everglades the same kindness by elevating the Trail.
Today's news is only a partial victory for 'Glades campaigners. Bear in mind that it's been 17 years since scientists said this step was needed. Prior to today, ground had been broken for a project to elevate one mile of the roadway. Today's announcement holds out hope for another 5.5 miles. That still leaves something like 4 1/2 miles of the highway that need to be raised to fully restore more-natural water flows. And even today's announcement didn't specify where the money would come from. It remains to be seen if Congress will go along.
Still, it's a good day for the Everglades. Over the next 24 hours 'Glades guardians will be pressing the flesh with D.C. politicians to try to make sure Congress funds that part of the restoration project as well as others.
Oh, I almost forgot to let you know the source of the quote in the hed. It's definitely from the Friends of the Everglades and is usually attributed to journalist-turned-Everglades-crusader Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of the classic "The Everglades: River of Grass." I have it on good authority, though, that the line was fed to Ms. Douglas by a lesser-known activist named Joe Podgor, who also worked hard for many years to help rescue the 'Glades (even if he angered some of his environmentalist allies).
I spent a decade writing mostly about the need to restore the Everglades and related ecosystems in my native South Florida. I hope to keep up on the big developments in the Everglades as we find out whether we'll get to keep the planet.
One final personal note: I'm curious about what this latest version of the plan for the Tamiami Trail will mean for Coopertown, the hamlet where my father and I often headed to catch bream and bass and — my favorite — catfish. Coopertown's restaurant is where I first tasted alligator and frog legs (deep-fried, of course). It has a special enough place in my heart that I wrote a tribute to the tiny town (population 8, last I checked) on its 50th anniversary. Will this be one more little bit of Old Florida that goes by the wayside? Maybe it's necessary to restore the 'Glades, but that still will be a sad day for me.
— Robert McClure