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River of grass

James Frankham

1st March, 2006

A tale of Indians and airboats, giant alligators and one of the world’s greatest ecosystems hanging in the balance.

He waits on the dock, wearing jeans, an enormous buckle on his belt, an embroidered waistcoat and a necktie. Buffalo Tiger, one of the last chiefs on the East Coast of the United States, greets me with a nod. His face is speckled by years of exposure to the sun and his thinning silver hair flutters in the breeze.

Buffalo Tiger has led his people for half a century and has defied the US government to win back a small section of swampland in the heart of Florida’s mighty Everglades National Park. I feel I should stoop in recognition of his status or offer that Disney gesture ‘How’ with my right hand.

Instead, I stand with him on the edge of a flimsy timber dock that looks out over miles of golden sawgrass and sinuous channels of dark water. ‘I was born right over there,’ he points vaguely in the distance, waving his arm gently to include the entire two million acres of National Park. What appears to be a massive inland delta is actually a slow moving river up to 100 kilometres across that runs from Lake Okeechobee in the east, devours the southern tip of Florida and diffuses into the Gulf of Mexico.

Conservationists worldwide have recognised south Florida, and specifically Everglades National Park, for its outstanding biological wealth. The Park is one of only three sites in the world to be designated a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

Tiger escorts me to a waiting airboat, stock-in-trade for navigating the waterways of the grassy interior. It resembles a giant hairdryer sitting on an aluminium baking tray. A gaggle of youngsters from the Miccosukee Reservation are already well established in the bow, grinning as if they slept with coat hangers in their mouths.

He sits carefully on a plastic seat and nods to his young apprentice Johnny, who clambers up the scaffolding of the elevated pilot seat, starts the 400- horsepower Cadillac engine mounted behind his head and stuffs cotton wool into his ears. Johnny squeezes the throttle open, deftly manoeuvres the roaring contraption into the waterway, and then gives her the gun. The white-knuckled tykes in front of me fizz with delight and issue wide-eyed squeals as we accelerate. Clouds of spray swirl behind the giant propeller and sawgrass clatters against the flat hull. My ears ring and pieces of severed foliage litter my wobbling cheeks.

Buffalo Tiger’s people once lived in north Florida, but their land was occupied when white farmers settled in the southern states. The Miccosukee were outnumbered and retreated into the Everglades swamp where they have lived in exile since the 1820s. They were not followed, never defeated and lived in isolation, without contact with white people or knowledge of the outside world.

Changing the course of nature

In the early 1950s US Army Engineers began flood-control works, which altered the course of the massive river and drained vast tracts of swampland. Indian villages were bulldozed. The Miccosukee emerged from more than a century of hiding under the leadership of Buffalo Tiger, claiming that they had never been defeated, that the land was theirs and the government should give it back. And so ensued a battle for the land that continued until the State of Florida finally granted Buffalo Tiger’s tribe lease on 189,000 acres of conservation land in 1983.

The aluminium hull rumbles with pleasure as Johnny flies us deeper into the flooded heart. I feel more than a little conspicuous – one skinny white guy with a boatload of Indians who have spent a great portion of their lives campaigning for the return of land from the hands of people my colour. And a self-conscious part of me quietly wonders whether Buffalo judges me as part of the conspiracy. Should I apologise?

Johnny’s eyes squint a little. He sits up tall and kills the engine, the three-metre-high sawgrass squeaking against the alloy as we coast to a stop.

The mirrorlike surface of the water is punctuated by a pair of flared nostrils, followed by two enormous gold-rimmed eyes and a series of bumps extending three metres to the tip of the tail that looks like a half-submerged steak knife. Air wheezes into the lungs and its body rises to the surface, revealing a powerful tail nearly 30 centimetres in diameter.

There are 1.2 million alligators in the swamps and waterways of Florida’s Everglades, making it somewhat less popular for swimming than Miami’s famous beaches only an hour to the east. But changes to the watercourse, high phosphorous levels from agricultural run-off, and pollution from urban development are reducing the alligator population. The 23,000 square kilometre watershed was once a single system of rivers, lakes and wetlands. Flood control and water supply structures have drastically reconfi gured the once free- flowing water, reducing the water volume and disrupting the natural flooding and drying cycle. The Everglades have nearly halved in extent, with the National Park preserving only a fifth of the native marshland.

‘There have been many changes in my lifetime,’ explains Buffalo Tiger, with the great aura of a wizened chief. ‘Once there were no white people here, no road, no pollution. And my people used to eat fish, turtles and ducks and grow sugar cane and bananas. But now nothing grows here.’ His eyes scan the sawgrass over my shoulder and he continues, ‘The public don’t realise what is going on until people start dying from drinking the water.’

Scientists estimate that in 1870, more than two million wading birds crowded the marshes and estuaries of south Florida. Within a hundred years that number had dropped to a few hundred thousand, just 10 per cent of the historical level.

The sixteenth century explorer Ponce de León claimed the Florida peninsula for Spain, in part because he was convinced that within the grassy heartland of the Everglades was a mythical fountain of youth. I doubt he found it, and if he did, it didn’t work. And now the great ecosystem may itself be facing an untimely death.

Miccosukee Indians and alligators share the fate of the Everglades. And recently, it has been discovered, white people also depend directly upon the health of the ecosystem. This vast inland marsh is the water source for Miami’s six million residents and south Florida’s valuable farming sector. Computer models of the region’s water flow predict that as population and industry continue to grow over the next 30 years, water shortages could occur every other year.

Restoring the balance

This news has brought about a remarkable change of tune at the metropolitan water board. In what may be the world’s most ambitious effort to restore an ecosystem, government agencies, business interests, and environmentalists are combining forces – and some US$7.8 billion – to reverse a century of draining and diking in the Everglades. Ironically, leading the charge is the US Army Corps of Engineers – the very same corps that built the dams and diverted flow paths in the first place. Over the next decade they will systematically dismantle 800 kilometres of canals and levees, numerous dams and aqueducts assembled by their corps just 40 years ago. It must be like eating a giant hat.

Yet the only thing more costly than fixing the problem is not fixing it. Economists believe that further declines in the ecological health of the Florida Bay region could bring losses of more than US$250 million a year in lost tourist dollars and reduced commercial fish catches.

It is anticipated that after the restoration of historical water patterns, species at every level of the food chain will recover their original population and distribution. But just how fast that will happen is still very much in question. Bringing back two million wading birds and the 68 endangered species that are hanging in the balance is problematic at best. And curbing human population growth, expected to double in less than 50 years, could be more diffi cult still.

‘Man cannot make this again,’ Buffalo Tiger casts his sober judgement, pausing on each word so it sinks through my thick white skull. ‘When you destroy the water you destroy your food and your life.’ He’s lived long enough to see the situation come full circle. White people took it. Spent millions wrecking it. And are now spending billions trying to restore it to what it was.

Indeed, the story of white man’s last century in Florida might even be funny, if the consequences were not so serious.

It now seems clear that the Miccosukee have lost their homeland forever – lost to the tide of development and the gradual ebb of water from their sawgrass. And while they can be mildly cheered by the fact that none of their number has ever died of cancer, it’s the old Indian prophecy that really tests their mettle: ‘White man will blow himself off the face of the earth leaving the land free once more for the Indians.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2006

 

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