Due to ample rainfall and low, flat terrain, Florida is more than 31 percent wetlands. The largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America exists in southern Florida, namely the Everglades. It is a large region of sawgrass marshland with mostly freshwater.
Native Americans referred to the Everglades as “grassy waters.” Presumably, it was named Everglades by cartographers — meaning grassy open spaces. The area is actually a slow-moving river up to 50 miles wide and more than 100 miles long. Cypress swamps and mangrove forests are also impressive.
Since the 1800s, the flow of water in the Everglades has been altered to benefit urban and agricultural development. The modification has vastly decreased its size. In addition, polluted agricultural runoff has affected water quality.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a conservationist, was dedicated to the preservation of the Everglades. Her book The Everglades: River of Grass was written in 1947, the same year as the formal opening of Everglades National Park. The grass she referred to was sawgrass (actually not true grass, but sedge). When adversaries declared the area a “worthless swamp” to be drained for land development, she proclaimed the significance and beauty of the region.
This ecosystem provides habitats for an abundance of creatures. There are 40 species of mammals, 360 species of birds, 23 species of snakes, and 200,000 alligators. One might observe golden orb spiders, lubber grasshoppers, whirligig beetles, and nearly 100 species of spectacular butterflies — all performing their ecological roles.
Indispensable plants are part of the wetland biodiversity. Mangroves stabilize the coastline. Herbaceous plants control erosion and nourish creatures. Hundreds of wildflower species, including a high diversity of orchids, entice pollinators.
However, habitat destruction and hydraulic changes have imperiled species such as the native ghost orchid. This rare and endangered flower is essential to attract pollinator moths. Moreover, it is a pleasure to perceive — slightly attached to a host tree, the leafless white bloom seems to float like a ghost.
Unstable surroundings have also encouraged invasive animal and plant species. However, the encroachment of the invasive Burmese pythons was caused by illegal pet release or accidental release during hurricanes. They have become apex predators, competing with the alligators. The mounting python population is estimated between 100,000 to 300,000 and is directly impacting the food chain — mammals, birds and reptiles. Challenges (hunts) with cash rewards are supported by the governor to capture the pythons.
Clearly, the well-being of this biological super system is vital. In addition to sustaining wild creatures and plants, it also benefits humans. It is a buffer against hurricanes. It supplies drinking water for one-third Floridians and provides irrigation for a substantial part of the state’s agriculture. It filters out water pollutants, absorbs excess nutrients, replenishes aquifers, and reduces flooding.
Of paramount importance in the Everglades is reestablishing the natural water flow, increasing freshwater storage, and improving water quality. The state and federal governments are coordinating the restoration of this national treasure.
The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet. — Marjory Stoneman Douglas.