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  1. What are the Everglades?
  2. Do the Everglades constitute a unique ecosystem?
  3. What is the River of Grass?
  4. What types of environmental threats does the region face?
  5. How has the sugarcane industry been able to cause such massive environmental deterioration?
  6. What's being done today to save the Everglades?


1. What are the Everglades?

The Everglades are the largest remaining sub-tropical wilderness in the lower 48 states. They contain both fresh and saltwater areas, open prairies, pine rocklands, tropical hardwood forests, offshore coral reefs, and mangrove forests. The broad spectrum of wildlife living in the Everglades includes aquatic birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, of which 56 species are endangered or threatened. Twenty-two of these species reside in two National Parks, four National Wildlife Refuges, and one National Marine Sanctuary which together draw 1.6 million visitors every year.


2. Do the Everglades constitute a unique ecosystem?

The Everglades contain many kinds of ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, open ponds, sawgrass marshes, small tree islands (of bald cypresses, willows, and slash pines), large hardwood hammocks, sloughs, and mangrove swamps. Everglades wildlife includes a host of species of wading birds (including egrets, the endangered wood stork, spoonbills, and herons); grassland birds including the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow; alligators; the endangered American crocodile; tropical fish and crustaceans, including the valuable pink shrimp and spiny lobster fisheries; and mammals (including panthers and wild hogs). The powerful natural forces of sun, water, wind, and fire greatly affect the development and lifecycles of these various ecosystems and their inhabitants. Subtle changes in elevation, which dictate water depth and inundation periods, create the right conditions for various plant and animal communities throughout the Everglades. All told, there is no landscape on earth quite like the Everglades.


3. What is the River of Grass?

The "River of Grass" is the dominant landscape of the Everglades ecosystem: expansively broad plains of sturdy saw grass, over which shallow waters slowly course. The term was popularized by Marjorie Stoneham Douglas, the tireless early defender of the Everglades, at a time when most people considered the Everglades to be an evil swamp that should be drained of its water. Douglas's book The Everglades: River of Grass told how beautiful, fragile, and environmentally important the Everglades was. This "river" is some 60 miles wide and stretches 300 miles from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay. The saw grass that is so abundant features needle-sharp leaves that grow to six feet or more; its presence is partially dependent on the frequent fires in the ecosystem, which limit shrub growth and create an environment hospitable to sawgrass and other marsh vegetation that grows around the area's ponds and sloughs.


4. What types of environmental threats does the region face?

Over the last century the Everglades have shrunk to less than half their original size as agricultural and residential development in the region (and, in turn, irrigation and flood control demands) have expanded. The process has been accelerated over the last 30 years by the growth of the sugar industry and skyrocketing development of Florida's east coast. Moreover, water is diverted from and sometimes to the Everglades as the needs of these adjacent residential and agricultural uses dictate. Accordingly, the ecological balance of the area has been thrown off, resulting in habitat and biodiversity loss. (Studies indicate that the region's wading bird population has decreased by 90 percent or more over the last several decades, indicating a sharp drop in ecosystem health.) Populations of wildlife found nowhere else in the world, such as the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and Florida panther, have been decimated.

Still more habitat destruction in the Everglades is being caused by invasions of exotic plants, such as Australian melaleuca, which deplete the region's water resources and squeeze out the native species on which the rest of the ecosystem depends.

Additionally, polluted runoff from nearby sugarcane and other agricultural operations as well as encroaching urban sprawl significantly alters the Everglades' complex and unique water chemistry. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus added by human activities cause profound imbalances in the Everglades water chemistry, disrupting native plant communities and altering wildlife habitat.

Everglades National Park, including Florida Bay, is seriously threatened by the water management practices of the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. Under the current regime, western portions of the Park experience harmful, prolonged periods of inundation while eastern portions of the Park are too dry. Because of a disruption in freshwater flows, Florida Bay, the nursery ground for a number of valuable commercial species, is experiencing massive algae blooms and a general decline in productivity.


5. How has the sugarcane industry been able to cause such massive environmental deterioration?

For the past 60 years, the sugar industry has benefited from massive drainage and flood-control projects paid for by the federal government, cheap water prices, a federal program encouraging cheap labor from Caribbean workers, and federal quotas on sugar imports. What's more, the federal government provides the industry with substantial subsidies that lock out foreign competition and guarantee a minimum selling price for sugar. Additionally, the industry's close ties with state lawmakers ensure low water prices for heavy usage. In the past decade, the industry has contributed almost $3 million to congressional races.


6. What's being done today to save the Everglades?

In 2000, Congress and President Clinton approved a multi-billion dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan or CERP -- the most ambitious environmental renewal effort ever -- to restore waterflows and bolster wildlife populations in South Florida. A major focus of this "replumbing" involves reversing the damage done a half century ago when the Army Corps of Engineers built a network of canals, levees and water-control structures to divert millions of gallons of water each day from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Congress also put in place legal requirements, such as required water allocations for the Everglades, to make sure that the ecosystem remains CERP's top priority and to prevent it from being hijacked to primarily serve the needs of agricultural interests and developers.

For most of this decade, CERP implementation has suffered delays, lack of funding and bureaucratic infighting and has produced no meaningful restoration results. In 2009, however, an infusion of federal funding and the State of Florida's decision to buy significant land in the Everglades currently under sugarcane cultivation created new hope and opportunities. The newly-acquired land can be used to store and clean large amounts of water for delivery into the Everglades. Government agencies are also working to restore water flows through the central Everglades to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay by removing barriers to water movement. One key project, for example, involves adding bridges to the Tamiami Trail roadway -- directing traffic above, and not through, the fragile marsh. The future of Everglades restoration rests on the rapid and integrated implementation of projects like these.


last revised 10/20/2009

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