"A Treasure for Our Country"
On December 11, 2000, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in George W. Bush, et al. v. Albert Gore Jr., et al., the partisan battle royale that would end the stalemate over the Florida recount and send one of the litigants to the White House. The deadlocked election had exposed a divided nation, and pundits were describing Governor Bush's "Red America" and Vice President Gore's "Blue America" as if they were separate countries at war. After five weeks of ferocious wrangling over "pregnant chads" and "hanging chads," hard-liners in both camps were warning of an illegitimate presidency, a constitutional crisis, a bloodless coup.
Inside the Court's marble-and-mahogany chambers, Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire watched the legal jousting with genuine awe. Smith was one of the hardest of Red America's hardliners, a passionate antiabortion, antigay, antitax Republican, and he believed he was watching a struggle for the soul of his country. Smith was also a former small-town civics teacher, less jaded than most of his colleagues in Congress, and Bush v. Gore was a civics lesson for the ages, a courtroom drama that would decide the leader of the free world. "It doesn't get any bigger than this," he thought.
But less than an hour into the proceedings, Smith suddenly walked out on history, squeezing his six-foot-five, 280-pound frame past his perplexed seatmates. "Excuse me," he whispered. "Excuse me." A bear of a man with fleshy jowls, a bulbous nose, and a sloppy comb-over, Smith could feel the stares as he lumbered down the center aisle, then jostled through the hushed standing-room crowd to the exit. "Excuse me. Excuse me."
Smith's abrupt departure looked like one of his unorthodox protests, like the time he brandished a plastic fetus on the Senate floor, or the time he announced he was resigning from the Republican Party because it was cutting too many big-government deals with the Democrats. Smith was an unabashed ideologue, rated the most conservative and the most frugal senator by various right-wing interest groups. He had voted against food stamps and Head Start, clamored for President Bill Clinton's impeachment, and even mounted his own quixotic campaign for president on a traditional-values platform.
But this was no protest. Smith was rushing to the White House, to celebrate a big-government deal with the Democrats.
At the height of the partisan war over the Florida recount, President Clinton was signing a bipartisan bill to revive the Florida Everglades, a $7.8 billion rescue mission for sixty-nine endangered species and twenty national parks and refuges. It was the largest environmental restoration project in the history of the planet, and Smith had pushed it through Congress with classic liberal rhetoric, dismissing its price tag as "just a can of Coke per citizen per day," beseeching his colleagues to "save this treasure as our legacy to our children and grandchildren." So after his dash from the Court, he headed straight to the Cabinet Room, where he exchanged congratulations with some of the Democratic Party's top environmentalists, like Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the former head of the League of Conservation Voters, and White House aide George Frampton, the former head of the Wilderness Society. And Smith was not even the most surprising guest in the West Wing that day.
That was Florida's Republican governor, another key supporter of the Everglades plan, a former Miami developer named Jeb Bush. As the world waited to hear whether his brother would win his state and succeed their father's successor in the White House, Jeb was already there, staring out at the Rose Garden with the air of a quarterback who had stumbled into the opposing locker room near the end of the Super Bowl. "The last time I was here, your father was president!" one lobbyist told him. Jeb tried to smile, but it came out more like a grimace. One Clinton appointee began babbling about the Cuban Missile Crisis possibly the last time that room had felt that tense. Jeb even said hi to a Miami congresswoman who had publicly accused him of suppressing black votes. "This," thought Jeb's top environmental aide, "is as surreal as politics can get."
Unless, that is . . . but no, Vice President Gore, a key architect of the Everglades plan, stayed home to listen to the Supreme Court audiotape. "I was really proud of what we accomplished in the Everglades," Gore later recalled. "But I was in a pretty pitched battle that day."
At 1:12 P.M., an ebullient President Clinton invited everyone into the Oval Office, the room that George W. Bush liked to say needed a good scrubbing. If the president was upset about Gore's plight, or Jeb's presence, or the legacy of impeachment, or his imminent move to the New York suburbs, the legendary compartmentalizer hid it well. "This is a great day!" he said. "We should all be very proud." He used eighteen ceremonial pens to sign the bill, graciously handing the first souvenir to Jeb. Senator Smith quipped that it was lucky Clinton's name wasn't Cornelius Snicklefritzer, or else the ceremony might never end. The president threw his head back and laughed. "Wow," thought his chief of staff, John Podesta, "this is like a Fellini movie."
If Florida's political swamp was tearing Americans apart, Florida's actual swamp had a knack for bringing people together. The same Congress that had been torn in half by Clinton's impeachment had overwhelmingly approved his plan for the Everglades, after lobbyists for the sugar industry and the Audubon Society walked the corridors of Capitol Hill arm-in-arm. The same Florida legislature that was in turmoil over Bush v. Gore had approved Everglades restoration without a single dissenting vote.
At a press conference after the ceremony, Jeb sidestepped the inevitable Bush v. Gore questions to highlight this unity: "In a time when people are focused on politics, and there's a little acrimony I don't know if y'all have noticed this is a good example of how, in spite of all that, bipartisanship is still alive." Reporters shouted follow-ups about the Court, but the governor cut them off with a smile. "No, no, no, no, you're going the wrong way on that one. We're here to talk about something that's going to be long-lasting, way past counting votes. This is the restoration of a treasure for our country."
Today, everyone agrees that the Everglades is a national treasure. It's a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, the most famous wetland on earth. It's a cultural icon, featured in Carl Hiaasen novels, Spiderman comics, country songs, and the opening credits of CSI: Miami, as well as the popular postcards of its shovel-faced alligators and spindly-legged wading birds. It's the ecological equivalent of motherhood and apple pie; when an aide on NBC's The West Wing was asked the most popular thing the president could do for the environment, he immediately replied: "Save the Everglades."
But there was once just as broad a national consensus that the Everglades was a worthless morass, an enemy of civilization, an obstacle to progress. The first government report on the Everglades deemed it "suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles." Its explorers almost uniformly described it as a muddy, mushy, inhospitable expanse of razor-edged sawgrass in shallow water too wet to farm, too dry to sail, too unpredictable to settle. Americans believed it was their destiny to drain this "God-forsaken" swamp, to "reclaim" it from mosquitoes and rattlesnakes, to "improve" it into a subtropical paradise of bountiful crops and booming communities. Wetlands were considered wastelands, and "draining the swamp" was a metaphor for solving festering problems.
The heart of the Everglades was technically a marsh, not a swamp, because its primary vegetation was grassy, not woody; the first journalist to slog through the Everglades called it a "vast and useless marsh." But it was usually described as a dismal, impenetrable swamp, and even conservationists dreamed of draining it; converting wet land into productive land was considered the essence of conservation. Hadn't God specifically instructed man to subdue the earth, and take dominion over all the living creatures that moveth upon it? Wasn't America destined to overpower its wilderness?
This is the story of the Everglades, from useless bog to national treasure, from its creation to its destruction to its potential resurrection. It is the story of a remarkable swath of real estate and the remarkable people it has attracted, from the aboriginals who created the continent's first permanent settlement in the Everglades, to the U.S. soldiers who fought a futile war of ethnic cleansing in the Everglades, to the dreamers and schemers who have tried to settle, drain, tame, develop, sell, preserve, and restore the Everglades. It's a story about the pursuit of paradise and the ideal of progress, which once inspired the degradation of nature, and now inspires its restoration. It's a story about hubris and unintended consequences, about the mistakes man has made in his relationship with nature and his unprecedented efforts to fix them.
The story begins with the natural Everglades ecosystem, which covered most of south Florida, from present-day Orlando all the way down to the Florida Keys. For most of its history, it was virtually uninhabited. As late as 1897, four years after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the western frontier closed, an explorer marveled that the Everglades was still "as much unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa."
But once white men got to know it, they began to transform it. A Gilded Age industrialist named Hamilton Disston was the first visionary to try to drain the swamp. A brilliant oilman-turned-developer named Henry Flagler considered his own assault on the Everglades while he was laying the foundation for modern south Florida. And an energetic Progressive Era governor named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward vowed to create an Empire of the Everglades with more canals, declaring war on south Florida's water.
The Everglades turned out to be a resilient enemy, resisting man's drainage schemes for decades, taking revenge in the form of brutal droughts and catastrophic floods, converting Florida swampland into an enduring real estate punchline. In 1928, a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through its flimsy muck dike and drowned 2,500 people in the Everglades, a ghastly foreshadowing of Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans. Mother Nature did not take kindly to man's attempts to subjugate her.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the ground troops in America's war against nature, finally conquered the Everglades with one of the most elaborate water-control projects in history, setting the stage for south Florida's spectacular postwar development. Suburbs such as Weston, Wellington, Plantation, Pembroke Pines, Miami Lakes, and Miami Springs all sprouted in drained Everglades wetlands. So did Miami International Airport, Sawgrass Mills Mall, Florida International University, Burger King corporate headquarters, and a vast agricultural empire that produces one out of every five teaspoons of American sugar. Disney World was built near the headwaters of the Everglades. And some people began to wonder whether the creation of a man-made paradise across Florida's southern thumb was worth the destruction of a natural one.
So the story of the Everglades is also the story of the transformation of south Florida, from a virtually uninhabited wasteland to a densely populated Fantasyland with 7 million residents, 40 million annual tourists, and the world's largest concentration of golf courses. "There has never been a more grossly exaggerated region, a more grossly misrepresented region, or one concerning which less has been known than this mighty empire of South Florida," the Palm Beach Post said in 1924. That's still about right.
America's war on nature has left a tattered battlefield in south Florida. Half the Everglades is gone. The other half is an ecological mess. Wading birds no longer darken the skies above it. Algal blooms are exploding in its lakes and estuaries, massacring its dolphins, oysters, and manatees. And it is now clear that the degradation extends beyond noxious vermin and pestilential reptiles, affecting the people of south Florida as well. The aquifers that store their drinking water are under siege. Their paradise has been sullied by sprawl, and by overcrowded schools, hospitals, and highways. Most of them are at risk from the next killer hurricane and the one after that. It is now almost universally agreed that south Florida's growth is no longer sustainable.
The Everglades restoration plan that President Clinton signed with Governor Bush at his side is supposed to restore some semblance of the original ecosystem, and guide south Florida toward sustainability. And the Army Corps of Engineers, after decades of helping to destroy the Everglades, will lead the effort to undo some of the damage. "The Everglades is a test," one environmentalist has written. "If we pass, we may get to keep the planet."
On that December day at the millennium's end, Republicans and Democrats described Everglades restoration as the dawn of a new era in conservation not only for south Florida, but for mankind. Instead of taming rivers, irrigating deserts, and draining swamps, man would restore ravaged ecosystems. Instead of fighting over scarce fresh water the oil of the twenty-first century Floridians would demonstrate how to share. The Everglades, Jeb Bush said, would be "a model for the world," proof that man and nature could live in harmony. America's politicians would finally pass the Everglades test.
It was a noble sentiment. But man had been flunking that test for a long time. Copyright ©2006 by Michael Grunwald