3 Lessons The Everglades Can Teach Everyone About the Environment

All photos credit Collin Dunn
Ed. note: 24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with a stop in the Florida Everglades, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along to report on the trip's experiences and lessons. First up: A stop in Florida's Everglades.
Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. At 1.4 million acres, it's a big, big place, and there's an awful lot going on, from the myriad wildlife (and invasive species that threaten it) who make the park home, to measurable (and immeasurable) human impacts, to tremendously complicated water issues, to ongoing efforts to restore it. Here are a quick top three lessons that everyone can learn from what's going on here.
Ranger Alan Scott sums it up: It's all about the water.

1. It's all about the water.

From India to Mexico and Australia to the southeastern U.S., there are fewer and fewer places in the world immune from water worries, and that's true in the Everglades. Even in a place that typically receives between 55 and 65 inches of precipitation a year, water is a huge problem here.

It has less to do with not enough falling from the sky and more to do with what has been done to alter the landscape and ecosystem in and around the park. Lake Okeechobee, known locally as "The Big O," is the seventh-largest freshwater lake in the U.S. -- big enough that you can't see from one side to the other. Once upon a time, it used to collect much of the falling rainwater, and, when it filled up, would unleash a low, slow flood a whopping 50 miles across. That flood fed the Everglades all the way down to the mangrove forests where the freshwater met with the salty Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The slow moving flood would take three months to get from the lake to the southernmost point in the park, feeding it along the way.

That doesn't happen any more. The easternmost point of the floodplain is now occupied by Miami International Airport (where regular flooding is not a good thing). Much of the area directly south of the lake has been converted to agriculture. A good bit of the floodplain has been drained (and is actively managed to keep it that way) for residential use. A series of channels, dykes, and canals keep the lake within it's borders; when there's too much rainfall, it's often sent "to tide" -- out to sea -- and the modern efficiency of the channels sees that a process that once took three months now takes 12 hours.

There are 6 million people who live within 50 miles of the park, and they want to live (for the most part) in a modern world; they all want clean water to drink and use in their homes, to water their crops, to recreate in, and they want it not to flood their homes when it rains. That adds up to the park getting the short end of the stick, so to speak, when it comes to all that water that used to feed it.

It's not all bad news. There's a huge restoration project underway -- the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan -- that's the biggest, most expensive restoration project on the planet. Part of the plan includes some new canal buffer zones that help keep more of the water in the park, and they work pretty well; the Everglades get to "keep" more of the moisture it needs so desperately to continue to thrive. In order to keep the canal buffers working, without leaking too much through the system of dykes and canals, an electricity-driven pump system must be in place and operating at all times, for as long as the system will be operating, from now until....

A Great Egret has a closer connection to you than you think

2. Most everything is more connected (and bigger) than you think.

One of the reasons that we visited the Everglades was to see a hugely diverse ecosystem that's under a variety of threats, human-caused and otherwise. While many of the plants and animals found in the Everglades are not in abundance many other places, it can still function as a reasonable microcosm, a living metaphor, for the rest of the planet. It's a huge living lab, and the story of water and the park above is just one example of watching a cause-and-effect relationship cascade down through the different levels of the ecosystem.

But zooming out a bit further, past the water management of Lake Okeechobee and within the boundaries of the park, there's much more to learn. Perhaps the most prescient lesson is twofold: It's all connected, and you have to look really close at a really big picture to get that.

What does this mean when it comes to the Everglades? An awful lot of things, but here's one good example: The Everglades' watershed doesn't stop at the park boundary (which, for the most part, is a political designation only -- no big dam surrounding it or anything). It goes 220 miles to the north, to Orlando, where, among other things, you can meet Mickey Mouse and visit the Magic Kingdom. How many people think about that when they flush the toilet after riding Space Mountain?

Bernie, the burmese python who formerly called the park home, represents one of the small efforts it's going to take to save the Everglades.

3. Combating and reversing little steps is what it takes to make a big difference.

Lastly, here's another look at the big picture of a relatively small space. The Everglades was cut apart, reapportioned, canaled, dyked, drained, and squared off a little at a time. It was established in 1947, and has been slowly changing ever since. No one particular event, person, or development is singularly responsible for it's degradation. Those little events have added up to big changes.

Reversing (or otherwise solving) the problems created by those little steps will require the same -- lots of little steps. Simply allowing Lake Okeechobee to flood again would wipe out thousands of acres of agriculture, many homes, and a good bit of Miami International Airport. While the reclamation of some of that development might sound like a good thing for park advocates on the surface, doing so in one fell swoop would likely have an effect on the scale of a natural disaster. How many times have you heard it before: There ain't no silver bullet. That's part of what makes this -- and other large-scale environmental problems -- such a challenge. Will the Everglades restoration succeed? Time will tell, a little bit at a time.

More on the Everglades
The Everglades Added to UNESCO Endangered Sites List
Obama Invests Millions to Save the Everglades
VIDEO: Focus Earth 2: Restoring The Everglades

Tags: Animals | Biodiversity | Florida | Galapagos

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