Muddy Waters

A great egret in the Florida Everglades, near South Bay
A great egret in the Florida Everglades, near South Bay (J. Pat Carter/ap)
Reviewed by John G. Mitchell
Sunday, April 2, 2006


The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

By Michael Grunwald

Simon & Schuster. 450 pp. $27

In recent years, writers have devoted a lot of ink to the tortured history of south Florida's Everglades. But no one has nailed that story as effectively, as hauntingly and as dramatically as Michael Grunwald does in The Swamp , a brilliant work of research and reportage about the evolution of a reviled bog into America's -- if not the world's -- most valuable wetland.

Grunwald, a prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, explains that the true, original Everglades were not a swamp in any botanically correct sense of the word but rather a marsh, "a vast sheet of shallow water spread across a seemingly infinite prairie of serrated sawgrass," often called the River of Grass. But Grunwald's sweep is bigger than that. It embraces the entire south Florida hydrosystem, a 100-mile long funnel that seeps from the Kissimmee lakes near Orlando, spills into Lake Okeechobee, then overflows through the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp to the mangroves of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. At least that's the way it used to be. Now, despite recent efforts to undo some of the engineered damage inflicted on it over the past 150 years, the swamp remains imperiled. "Half the Everglades is gone," Grunwald writes. "The other half is an ecological mess. Wading birds no longer darken the skies above it." Okeechobee is choking on algal blooms. Sprawl continues to nibble the edge of the Big Cypress. Unsustainable communities "are at risk from the next killer hurricane -- and the one after that."

Risk has been south Florida's leitmotif since Europeans first pushed their way into its wild interior. The region was certainly risky for the Seminole Indians, who barely escaped annihilation by the U.S. Army in the 1830s. Unconquered, a few hundred managed to hang on in the Big Cypress. Later in the 19th century, risk shifted to the great flocks of wading birds -- spoonbills, flamingos, herons and egrets -- whose plumage was thought better adorning milady's stylish hats. Before laws brought that slaughter to a halt, one report fixed the kill at 5 million birds a year.

The most enduring risks were framed by the dreamers and schemers who believed that the Everglades must be drained to make the country fit for settlement and cultivation. Grunwald chronicles each successive (though not always successful) effort to dry out the swamp and describes the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, which uncorked the backed-up waters of Lake Okeechobee, drowning nearly 3,000 people (mostly poor blacks -- a foretaste of Hurricane Katrina) and prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a four-story concrete dike around the lake, thus stifling much of the flow to the Everglades.

Grunwald is at his best in dissecting the political wars that rattled the region after Everglades National Park was established at the toe of the hydrosystem in 1947 -- which meant that upstream city folks and cattlemen and sugar growers got first dibs on releases of fresh water while the park had to settle for the leftovers, now tainted with pesticides and fertilizers. Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers, presiding over "the largest earth-moving effort since the Panama Canal," crisscrossed the peninsula with hundreds of miles of levees and canals designed not so much to save human lives as to boost the Sunshine State's economy.

A reader might become numb from Grunwald's stacking of the details were it not for his skill at profiling the characters who, by the late 1960s, were trying to turn the flow of events back Nature's way. Among them: activist-writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, grand dame of the River of Grass; and Nathaniel Pryor Reed, the "blue-blooded outdoorsman" whose 6-foot-5-inch frame "evoked a great blue heron" and whose eloquence convinced two pro-development Republican politicians, Florida Gov. Claude Kirk Jr. and U.S. Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, to scuttle Dade County's plan to build the world's largest jetport just a coconut-throw north of Everglades National Park.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew leveled Homestead Air Force Base, located between Everglades and Biscayne national parks. Afterward, Dade County's high rollers, including some who had lost out on that earlier jetport scheme, said this would be a fine place to build a big commercial airport -- never mind that the result would darken both parks' skies with 600 flights a day. The Clinton administration juggled that one for several years even as it cobbled together a $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and billed it as the most expensive and extensive environmental initiative in history. Calculated to undo much of the damage inflicted on the 'glades over the years, the restoration plan was unveiled by Vice President Al Gore in West Palm Beach in 1998. Environmentalists cheered.

But few Florida enviros cheered for Gore in 2000. The greenest presidential candidate in American history declined to renounce the Homestead jetport and was punished for it. According to Grunwald, of the 96,000 votes received by Ralph Nader in Florida that November, some 10,000 were probably attributable to Gore's waffling on the airport. And the final irony? Four days before Clinton turned over the Oval Office to the anti-green George W. Bush, Clinton's administration announced that the Homestead deal was dead in the water -- what little there was left of it. ยท

John G. Mitchell, a former editor at Newsweek and National Geographic, has been writing about the Everglades since 1967.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company