January 10, 2013

Everglades National Park: The River of Grass

The Everglades were originally called "The River of Grass" by Majory Stoneman Douglas in her book of the same name in 1947. It was called this because the water that flows out of Lake Okeechobee creates a shallow river only a foot or so deep, 60 miles wide, and 100 miles long. The Everglades are an amazing series of ecosystems focused primarily on the sawgrass prairies, where most of the water moves.

The Everglades have a tumultuous history, beginning with the plume-hunting of the late 1800's. These plume hunters would go down and shoot wading birds during the nesting season to supply feathers for hats. It became so bad, that populations that once ranged in the millions declined to the point where some species were thought to be very close to extinction. Poachers also took out so many alligators and crocodiles that their populations also approached extirpation in South Florida.

After laws were pass to protect these species, a new series of threats challenged the integrity of the Everglades. Sugarcane and agricultural fields were plowed and water diverted to irrigate these fields. Growing cities meant building canals and filling in wetlands for housing development. Before long, nearly 50% of the Everglades ecosystem was converted to farms and urban development and more than 50% of the way is diverted before reaching the portions within Everglades National Park.

Even this water creates issues because much of it is contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural runoff from sugarcane fields up stream. Extensive water retention areas have been constructed to slow the flow of the water and settle out the contaminates before they enter the national park. But, increased nutrients have begun to change aspects of the Everglades ecosystems by allowing marsh plants like cattails to replace sawgrass prairies. It also allows for the expansion of exotic species like Brazilian pepper.

Nonetheless, the Everglades still protect vast tracts of wetlands, mangroves, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands rich in wildlife. On our visit over five days, we saw almost all of the wading birds we could have hoped to see, in addition to dozens of alligators, raptors, manatees, and even an endangered American crocodile.

Great egrets almost disappeared from South Florida at the turn of the 20th century

As we move through some of these posts, I'll highlight some of the must see places in-and-around the Everglades should you make a visit to South Florida.

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