Foreverglades

Riddle: What does the Trump administration and the Army Corp of Engineers have in common?

Answer: Both tried to drain the swamp and both failed miserably!

At one time, four thousand square miles of southern Florida was regarded as a vast and untapped resource,

cattails

but not because of its natural beauty and bounty.

blue heron

Rather, the Everglades was long considered an uninhabitable and hostile environment filled with horrible reptiles,

iguana

snout underwater

hordes of mosquitoes, and enough sawgrass to cut a man to shreds;

taking flight

yet, nonetheless worthy of future cultivation and commerce, if only the rich underlying soil could be reclaimed.

By the middle of the 19th century, political dreams and aspirations begat studies and commissions which begat a Congressional resolution that decreed that draining the swamp would result in enormous land improvement, incentivizing developers and homesteaders to relocate to Florida.

After the Civil War, Hamilton Disston, a Pennsylvania real estate magnate bought 4 million acres at 25 cents an acre, and began dredging canals through the mangrove forests with the intention of lowering the levels of the wetlands by reducing the basin of the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee Rivers.

canal

While the canals never drained the Everglades, the publicity spawned newcomers to the area, who willingly paid Disston $5 per acre–establishing towns like Fort Myers on the west coast and Ocala in central Florida.

Oil tycoon, Henry Flagler took notice, and seized the opportunity to buy large tracts of coastal land to build a railroad, eventually reaching Miami, and encouraging further growth and tourism to fill his grand hotels, from St. Augustine to Palm Beach and beyond.

Fast forward to the 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, built a dike four stories high, and 66 miles long on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee–controlled through a system of channels, locks and levees–shifting the focus from drainage to flood control, in response to deadly storm surge caused by massive hurricanes.

The dike was so successful at holding back groundwater, that 1 million acres of Everglades, now parched and leached with ocean water burned in 1939 after an epic drought. Top soil quickly decomposed from bacteria now exposed to air, causing homes erected during the building boom to lose their foundations, only to be replaced by stilts.

A series of pump stations were built in the 1950s, designed to release water in drier times, or remove and pump it to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico in times of flood.

pump house.jpg

And so it went throughout decades of mismangement: one problem after another led to one fix after another, with little regard for conservation.

Although Everglades National Park was dedicated in 1947 to preserve a fragile ecosystem that was suffering from explosive growth and systematic water diversion, the Army Corp of Engineers continued to build water conservation areas bordered by canals for intended sugarcane production and thriving population centers, again depriving the Everglades of water, and further shrinking a vanishing ecosystem.

Today, the Everglades is widely known as a network of wetlands,

mirrored water

and forests,

palm apples

not a swamp as was once thought–although it flows almost imperceptibly at three feet per hour out of Lake Okeechobee–and is home to threatened species such as the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee. Congressional appropriations are currently earmarked only for environmental projects, with high priority given to restoring the natural flow, but not without political sleight of hand and conservation controversy.

On a recent visit to the Everglades Holiday Park, part of Broward County Parks,

portrait.jpg

Leah and I took an airboat ride through the canals…

airboat

cruising at 60

…in search of alligators which have eluded us since the beginning of our trip (see: Where Have All the Gators Gone?).

But not this time around. Happily, Captain MJ knew exactly where to find them–on the mud flats…

gater on mud

and in the water…

gater in the water

head above water

Afterwards, we marveled at the stories of Paul Bedard, a bouny hunter and trapper who has made a commitment to rescue as many alligators as possible…

Stumpy shows his 80 teeth

from golf courses, backyards, and swimming pools.

no hands!

At the end of the show, we dismissed the notion of having our picture taken with a baby gator, but couldn’t help but be amused by those who patiently waited their turn.

holding a gator (2).jpg

Alternately, while walking through the park, our thoughts returned to Donald Trump,

gater sunning

who pledged to drain the political landscape of government corruption, “and make our government honest again–believe me.”

Yet he continues to enrich himself at the taxpayers expense: with extended stays to golf properties he still owns; and by championing the Republican tax bill–which guarantees his family millions of dollars saved from pass-through deductions, a top-rate tax reduction, and an expanded estate-tax exemption.

No less guilty are three of Trump’s lieutenants: Tim Price, disgraced and outed Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt…

on the beach

all accused of using government funds for personal travel on outrageously expensive non-commercial flights.

Which begs the question: How can they be trusted to swim through the Everglades without harming their own environment?

Where Have all the Gators Gone? (Long Time Passing…)

Traveling the Gulf coastline across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana during the past week has brought us closer to Creole and Cajun cuisine, crawfish, casinos and country music, but alas, no crocodilia. Having driven nearly five hundred miles of state and county highways, and cruising endless back roads and bayou causeways, we have yet to see an alligator, which begs the question: Where have all the gators gone?

Not that we haven’t come close to spotting one. Mind you, there have been several vicarious sightings so far. For instance, yesterday we were driving/walking through Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre habitat on Avery Island with exotic palms, sculpted lagoons,

algae.jpg

scores of majestic oaks with gnarled and expansive limbs draped in Spanish moss,

Leah pose.jpg

a 10th century Buddha housed in a glass-walled pagoda,

Buddha.jpg

a bird sanctuary that hosts thousands of snowy egrets,

egret.jpg

and purportedly a family of alligators that have bred on the property since Ned McIlhenny introduced them almost 100 years ago. By the time Leah and I reached Bird City on the tour, we were lucky to meet a woman who had already come across six alligators in two separate locations. It warmed our hearts to be basking in her reptilian aura.

Then there was the time we stayed at Davis Bayou National Seashore in Ocean Spring, MS. We walked a half-mile-long nature trail that meanders around a leg of swamp fed by the Mississippi Bayou. Posted at the trail head is an easy-to-read sign that prohibits all alligator snacks.

no feeding gators (2).jpgSurely, there must be gators here. Why else would they post a sign, we wondered. Yet we saw no alligators. However, another hiker told us that she was told by a park ranger who had heard from another ranger that a resident gator was spotted earlier in the day crossing the road in front of our campground–the very same road where we towed our Airstream, so that should count, right?

The next day, we pedaled to the boat launch where the same warning signs were posted, and Leah claimed to have seen a stick in the water that when hit by the sun at a certain angle during a specific time of the day closely resembled an alligator’s head.

We wondered if there was an art or a science to attracting alligators, so we created an alligator call just in case they were listening. It went something like, “Heeere, gator gator gator; heeere, gator!” Once, our calling was overheard by an older couple who gave us a strange look, but that’s because they probably didn’t understand English. Regardless, the gators never came; either they weren’t listening, or they were avoiding us.

We joked about going to an alligator petting zoo. It wouldn’t be too far out of our way, since we could easily see it from the road. But then we realized that it would be a waste of our time, surmising that it would be hard to decide who has fewer teeth–the alligator or the proprietor.

I know that alligators exist because I’ve seen them on TV and in zoos. And I can still recall that little boy who tragically lost his life near a Disneyworld lagoon while his father looked on in horror.

Yet the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and doesn’t lie: there seems to be a serious shortage of alligators interested in meeting us–making it painfully obvious to any amateur herpetologist–that gators are playing hard-to-get… or maybe they’re just shopping around for a better agent.