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The Everglades

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 1

    “There are no other Everglades in the world.” With those words, conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas began her 1947 opus about the vast sheet of slow-moving water that blankets South Florida, creating a unique wetland ecosystem unlike any other on Earth.

    Douglas’s account doubled as a plea to politicians, speculators, and business barons who were rapidly replacing that ecosystem with an equally vast expanse of concrete. Spurred on by a dizzying string of real estate booms, Floridians had managed the once-unthinkable feat of draining millions of acres of swamp and smothering the reclaimed land with orange groves, beachfront resorts, and sprawling suburbs.

    The taming of the Everglades was one of the grandest water engineering projects in human history—and one of mankind’s most ecologically destructive acts. It gave birth to a region that now houses over 9 million people with a $369.5 billion economy perpetually on the brink of being swallowed back up by the surrounding water. But with an equally Herculean effort, Florida’s Everglades management could become a global model for environmental (and self-)preservation.

    Break out your bug spray and hold onto your hats: We’re taking an airboat ride into the swamp.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 2

    1,100: Species of trees and plants that inhabited the natural Everglades before it was drained

    52: Varieties of brightly colored tree snails that inhabited those trees and plants

    1: Place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles live side by side (we’ll give you one guess where it is)

    1.5 million acres: Area covered by Everglades National Park, less than two-thirds the size of the original Everglades

    1,000 miles (1,600 km): Total length of canals the US Army Corps of Engineers built to drain Everglades water out to sea

    $16.4 billion: Estimated cost to undo the Army Corps’s work and partially restore the Everglades

    0: Number of times the Seminole tribe of Florida surrendered in three wars against US troops sent to ethnically cleanse the Everglades. The troops spent most of their time mired in mud and dying of malaria.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 3

    In the mid-19th century, Floridians began a campaign to rid the Everglades of all its troublesome water. Led by boosters like hard-charging governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, they envisioned an “Empire of the Everglades” where farmers could plow the rich muck at the bottom of the swamp and coastal cities could sprout up on newly dry land.

    To do that, they needed to dig. There are only a few feet of elevation change across all of central and southern Florida, which is why water naturally flows in vast, lethargic sheets that span the width of the state on their way out to sea. Over the course of a century, under various drainage schemes, the state sent dredge boats to straighten and deepen natural rivers or dig up new canals—all for the sake of moving water more efficiently from the middle of the state to the ocean.

    By the middle of the 20th century, engineers had caged Lake Okeechobee, once the flood-prone headwaters of the Everglades, behind 143 miles of earthen levees known as the Herbert Hoover Dike. A web of arrow-straight canals siphoned water out to sea in an orderly fashion, and a 100-mile perimeter levee walled off the east coast cities from the state’s interior wetlands.

    The state’s efforts fundamentally changed the way water flowed over millions of acres—setting off an unexpected mess of floods, fires, and wildlife die-offs. But as the swamp withered, farms and cities bloomed in its place.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 4

    ~3000 BCE: The Everglades form, around the same time the ancient Egyptians are building their first pyramids

    1855: Florida creates the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund (IIF) to oversee Everglades drainage, giving it the power to sell swampland to fund dredging projects.

    1881: The IIF grants Philadelphia millionaire Hamilton Disston half of all the Everglades land he can drain. Disston buys an additional 4 million acres of land outright and begins dredging canals to drain Lake Okeechobee.

    1896: Railroad baron Henry Flagler extends his tracks down the length of Florida to Miami, establishing lavish resorts for ultra-wealthy snowbirds along the way, and paving the way for future settlers to access the southern reaches of the state.

    1911: Florida senator Duncan Fletcher publicizes a bogus engineering report painting a rosy picture of the progress on Everglades drainage, setting off a rush to buy South Florida real estate.

    1913: 20,000 disappointed homesteaders demand refunds after realizing the land they bought is under several feet of water.

    1925: Drainage projects and dry weather lower water levels, fueling another land boom; the Miami Daily News publishes a 7.5 pound edition of the paper, almost entirely full of land listings.

    1928: A devastating hurricane strikes Florida, breaking the earthen dams holding back water from Lake Okeechobee. Thousands drown.

    1930s: Aviators begin flying over the Everglades dropping seeds of the fast-spreading, water-gulping melaleuca tree in an effort to lower water levels—unleashing an invasive plant the state is still paying millions of dollars a year to eradicate.

    1943-44: Drainage schemes prove too successful; the dry conditions spark massive wildfires, burning up the rich, organic soil farmers hoped to till.

    1947: President Harry Truman dedicates 1.3 million acres of land as Everglades National Park.

    1948: Congress tasks the Army Corps of Engineers with managing the floods and fires devastating Florida. They spend decades and billions of dollars reconfiguring how water flows through the state, diverting water away from the national park to serve farms and cities.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 6

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist and activist who spent many of her 108 years defending the Everglades. A short, slight, genteel woman known for her impeccable dress, straw hats, and a signature string of pearls, she often surprised her adversaries with her ferocity. “They call me a nice old woman, but I’m not,” she explained to a reporter.

    The New Englander moved to South Florida in 1915, at age 25, to take a job at her father’s fledgling paper, the Miami Herald. Her 1947 bestseller The Everglades: River of Grass offered lyrical descriptions of the ecosystem that helped to change the public perception of South Florida’s wetlands as worthless swamps. She spent the next 51 years of her life fighting developers, marshaling public opinion, and browbeating politicians in service to the Everglades.

    Old age suited Douglas. She was known to play up her deafness to talk over her time limit at public hearings. Once, while she was speaking in front of a hostile crowd, she paused to instruct the audience to boo louder. As she later explained: “I’ve got white hair, I’ve been around here forever, and no one can afford to be rude to me. And don’t think I don’t take advantage of that.”

    Aside from her environmental campaigning, she also started the first ACLU chapter in the South, fought for the rights of migrant workers, and pushed to ratify both the Women’s Suffrage Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment—throwing herself into activism with a level of energy she attributed, with her characteristic frankness, to having given up sex in 1913. She towered over South Florida public life until her death in 1998.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 7

    “It is a land of swamps, of quagmires, of frogs and alligators and mosquitoes! A man, sir, would not immigrate into Florida…no, not from Hell itself!”

    —Virginia congressman John Randolph, arguing against Florida’s petition to become a state in 1845

    “I have bought land by the acre, and I have bought land by the foot; but, by God, I have never before bought land by the gallon.”

    —A disillusioned homesteader, after inspecting Everglades land he had purchased sight unseen during the 1910s real estate boom

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 8

    By 2000, half of the Everglades were gone. Water flowed through South Florida according to an intricate system of canals, levees, and flood gates operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Cities, farms, and the national park competed for a dwindling share of water resources as toxic algae blooms massacred wildlife and tourism revenues.

    That year, Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a 35-year project to undo some of what engineers had spent the past 150 years building. Engineers began blowing up dams and filling in their perfectly straight canals, restoring some waterways to their lazy, meandering flow. Now they’re raising the Tamiami Trail—a highway bisecting the swamp, which currently acts like a giant dam—to allow water to flow beneath it.

    The project is billed as the world’s largest ecosystem restoration. Although it has moved slowly and ballooned beyond its original budget, its major provisions remain fully funded. The ecosystem these restoration efforts create will remain highly unnatural and tightly controlled by engineers—the Army Corps calls it a “Disney Everglades”—but it will be a healthier approximation of the environment that existed before the 1800s. And if the plan pans out, it’ll ensure that the humans who now share the region will continue to have access to clean water.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 9

    Invasive Burmese pythons began slithering into the Everglades from pet shops and homes in the 1980s, and have been a stubborn fixture ever since. They’re big enough to swallow any native animal (including alligators) and they have no natural predators—except for the Swamp Apes, a group of veterans dedicated to hunting them out of the ecosystem.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 10

    🌾 The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas: a legendary love letter to South Florida’s natural environment, that had an impact comparable to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

    💧 The Swamp by Michael Grunwald: a definitive history of humanity’s efforts to drain and restore the Everglades

    👀 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: a classic novel about the destruction wrought by the 1928 hurricane that burst the dike holding back Lake Okeechobee

    🐊 Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: a surreal, haunting tale of a struggling alligator wrestling family in southwest Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands

    🔪 Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen: a zany crime caper about a string of South Florida murders intended to ward off out-of-state visitors that spoil the environment

    🌼 The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean: a dive into the strange subculture of rare flower sellers operating in Florida’s swamps

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Everglades — Card 12

    Humans did a real number on the Everglades—but of course it’s not the only place on Earth that’s changing. Check out what a climate haven could look like in our very near future. Or, let our member-exclusive field guides steer your airboat in the right direction.

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