The Swamp Is Real And Infested

For at least a century and a half, the Everglades wrestled with an image problem. Today, looking at its endless acres of swaying sawgrass, Americans see precious wetlands, home to the egret and the orchid. But for earlier generations, the Everglades was simply a swamp, a mosquito-infested wasteland. "The first and most abiding impression is the utter worthlessness to civilized man, in its present condition, of the entire region," wrote Buckingham Smith, a Harvard-educated lawyer and historian sent by the government to study the Everglades in the 1840s.

Drain it, settle it and put it to productive use. That was the mission, pursued zealously by wave after wave of engineers, politicians, real estate sharks, simple farmers and sun chasers from the North and Midwest. Their quest, fueled by ignorance and greed, transformed one of the country's great natural wonders into an ecological disaster area.

Grunwald, a reporter for The Washington Post, tells three intertwined stories in "The Swamp." Beginning at the beginning, he describes the creation of the Everglades, the unique "river of grass" whose exotic wildlife and vegetation held naturalists like John James Audubon spellbound, and traces the ill- advised efforts to tame it. His second theme is politics and power, the high- stakes battles over the Everglades waged by environmentalists, developers, sugar barons and politicians.

Finally, there is "the swamp" itself, whose intricate, far-flung ecological system Grunwald evokes in loving detail, from the twists and turns of the Kissimmee River to the shores of Lake Okeechobee to the herons, mangroves and purple gallinules of the Glades. The Everglades, Grunwald writes, was always too subtle to command love and respect, "less ooh or aah than hmm." In his hands, the ooh and aah come to life.

"The Swamp" abounds in rascals, visionaries and visionary rascals. One of Grunwald's virtues is his clear-eyed refusal to impose present-day standards on past behavior. The can-do engineers and ruthless tycoons who looked at Florida's squishy paradise in the making usually thought they were rendering a service to mankind. The most enlightened minds of the Progressive era believed in a "wise use" policy toward nature. The land and its gifts were there to be managed and turned to profitable account. "The Everglades of Florida should be saved," Napoleon Bonaparte Broward announced after being elected governor in 1904. "They should be drained and made fit for cultivation."

Grunwald, a terrific writer, moves along at a cracking pace. The dredges dig, the railroad advances, the politicians scheme and the dreamers paint their Technicolor fantasies. There is a feverish quality to the endless engineering assaults, the mad plans to rechannel the circulatory system of the Everglades, the blind determination to ignore the forces of nature.

The wildlife seemed like an inexhaustible resource, so when the fashion in women's hats demanded feathers, plume hunters went on a rampage, killing spoonbills, snowy egrets and flamingos. An estimated five million birds were slaughtered in 1886 alone. Belatedly, Florida imposed a plume ban, and in 1903 Teddy Roosevelt created a five-acre, or two-hectare, bird sanctuary on Pelican Island.

Again and again, wanton destruction led to horrified realization, followed by remorse and pledges to repair the damage, or the creation of parks, most notably the Everglades National Park in 1947. But year after year, acre by acre, the Everglades shrank. The Army Corps of Engineers continued to see flood control and economic development as its primary mission, not protection of the ecosystem.

"The Swamp" turns a corner in the early 1970s, when the heroic era of digging and planting and damming comes to an end. The last third of the book deals increasingly with intricate political and economic maneuvering over the Everglades.

"The Swamp" ends on an uncertain note. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan passed, but its goals seem ambiguous. Half the original Everglades has disappeared, the remainder is slowly dying and the pressures of population growth and development in Florida continue unabated. Good intentions, and lots of government money, may not be enough. In the future there may be no ooh, no aah, not even hmm.

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