One of the country’s most celebrated natural areas, the EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK is a vast, tranquil wildlife reserve, with a subtle, raw appeal that makes a stark contrast to America’s more rugged national parks. The most dramatic sights are small pockets of trees poking above a completely flat sawgrass plain, yet these wide-open spaces resonate with life, forming part of an ever-changing ecosystem, evolved through a unique combination of climate, vegetation and wildlife.
Though it appears to be flat as a table-top, the limestone on which the Everglades stands actually tilts very slightly towards the southwest. For thousands of years, water from summer storms and the overflow of nearby Lake Okeechobee has moved slowly through the Everglades towards the coast. The water replenishes the sawgrass, which grows on a thin layer of soil formed by decaying vegetation. This gives birth to the algae at the base of a complex food chain that sustains much larger creatures – most importantly alligators. After the floodwaters have reached the sea, drained through the bedrock, or simply evaporated, the Everglades are barren except for the water accumulated in ponds – or “gator holes” – created when an alligator senses water and clears the soil covering it with its tail. Besides nourishing the alligator, the pond provides a home for other wildlife until the summer rains return. Sawgrass covers much of the Everglades, but where natural indentations in the limestone fill with soil, fertile tree islands – or “hammocks” – appear, just high enough to stand above the floodwaters.
In the nineteenth century, the Seminole and Miccosukee Native American tribes were forced to live hunter-gatherer existences in the Everglades, and still maintain a sizeable presence here. By the late 1800s, a few towns had sprung up, peopled by settlers who, unlike the Native Americans, looked to exploit the land. As Florida’s population grew, the damage caused by hunting, road building and draining for farmland gave rise to a significant conservation lobby. In 1947, a section of the Everglades was declared a national park, which today bestows federal protection to a comparatively small area at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The Everglades’ boundaries have been steadily pushed back by urban development over the last century, and unrestrained commercial use of nearby areas continues to upset the region’s natural cycle. The 1200 miles of canals built to divert the flow of water away from the Everglades and toward the state’s expanding cities, the poisoning caused by agricultural chemicals from local farmlands and the broader changes wrought by global warming could yet turn Florida’s greatest natural asset into a wasteland.