For about 5,000 years, the waters of the peninsula we now call Florida flowed south into the Kissimmee River. The Kissimmee emptied into enormous Lake Okeechobee, which in turn spilled over into a vast, shallow sheet that slid slowly along the nearly flat expanse of south Florida to the ocean. This was the complex and subtle ecosystem of the natural Everglades, a seemingly endless marsh replete with sawgrass, birds, bugs, and muck dubbed “Grassy Water” by the Seminole Indians. “No country that I have ever heard of bears any resemblance to it,” wrote one 19th-century U.S. soldier in a local newspaper after he was sent to drive the Seminole out of the state. “It seems like a vast sea, filled with grass and green trees.”

The Swamp: The
Everglades, Florida,
and the Politics of
Paradise
, by Michael
Grunwald, Simon &
Schuster, 384 pgs.,
2006.

In The Swamp, Michael Grunwald, a reporter for The Washington Post, recounts the successive generations of eager land sharks, politicians, sugar magnates, engineers, and farmers whose visions of “reclaiming” south Florida for industrious and profitable human use have transformed it into an ecosystem on life support. It is one long tale of environmental devastation, spasms of regret, and promises of repair — most recently, the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan passed by Congress in 2000, a complex and controversial effort led by the state and the Army Corps of Engineers that has landed in intensive care alongside the landscape it’s supposed to bring back.

Grunwald’s in-depth reporting on the Everglades began in a Post series, which earned him a 2003 Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Approaching south Florida’s waves of rogues and reformers with marvelous pacing and style, he avoids judging figures from the past on modern terms in favor of interweaving the ecological, social, and political histories of the Everglades into a cracking good yarn.

Grist spoke with Grunwald recently as he drove along a Florida highway toward Orlando. The occasional dropped cell-phone connection didn’t impede a lively conversation about restoration, resistance, and the perils of being misunderstood.


 

Michael Grunwald.

Photo: The Washington Post.

What led you to write about the Everglades?

In 2000, I spent the entire year kicking the Army Corps of Engineers around in a series for the Post, mostly for the way they were cooking their economic studies to justify boondoggle projects that were also environmentally destructive. Then I heard that the Corps, which had helped destroy the Everglades, was now in charge of a project to help restore it. That struck me as really interesting, particularly when I heard that the project was going to be the largest environmental effort in history.

In my series, the Everglades was supposed to be the last part — the happy good-news story. When I finally went down there, I realized that it was a lot more complicated. It’s not exactly your grandfather’s Corps of Engineers, but it’s not a corps of biologists either. And there were some serious questions about whether this Everglades restoration project was actually going to restore the Everglades.

So has it? You write that the Kissimmee River restoration has succeeded.

The Army Corps in the ’60s turned the Kissimmee River into a ditch. It was no longer even called the Kissimmee River — people called it the C-38 Canal. Unlike some Corps projects, just about everyone really hated this one. There was incredible pressure to undo it. So the Corps was finally dragged kicking and screaming into a restoration project [in 1992] with the state pushing them to do it in a more environmentally sound way.

If the skeeters don’t getcha then the gators will.

Photo: iStockphoto.

When I visited the Kissimmee [in 2002] it was my first time in the ecosystem. A [state biologist] named Lou Toth, who was really the guiding force behind the project, took me into this broad-leaf marsh, a bunch of scraggly vegetation and water up to your shins. He cut off the airboat and made his grand gesture, saying, “A year ago this was all a bone-dry cattle pasture.” I looked around and said wow, if it’s this good now, what will it look like in 10 years? Lou looked at me like I was a moron and said, “Like this. We’re done. If you blow up a dam, if you get out of nature’s way, nature comes back.” And it’s true. The fish, the birds, the dissolved oxygen levels, the sandbars are back. But the Everglades restoration is a lot more complicated, because there are 7 million people living around the Everglades, which is not true of the Kissimmee.

When I started writing about the Everglades in 2002, the Post ran a story with Lou basically trashing the restoration project, saying that if the Corps hadn’t learned the lessons of the Kissimmee, they wouldn’t get it right. He got into a lot of trouble. Lou had been the employee of the year at his water management district the year they started restoring the Kissimmee. A couple years later he was demoted.

That seems to be a trend — retaliation against government employees who advocate for the Everglades, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who was fired after he objected to development projects in Florida panther habitat.

I try to be optimistic about a lot of things, but I find this depressing. These scientists are reaching conclusions that may not be exactly what economic interests want to hear. It’s understandable that there’s a lot of political pressure, but sometimes their bosses, and the politicians their bosses answer to, are really — I guess the polite term would be overly responsive.

Some politicians green up their message just to get through election season.

People have been able to get away with just being in favor of the Everglades. And they haven’t necessarily paid a price for that. But whether it’s the sugar industry, or real-estate industry, or water utilities, or rock mining, the real problem in the Everglades is not so much Big Sugar as it is big people.

Loving it to death just by showing up?

And showing up in the wrong places. In this $10 billion restoration plan, there is no provision for smart growth. So you’re asking the Army Corps, which isn’t exactly Picasso, to paint the masterpiece — yet every day you’re shrinking the canvas.

I’m about to marry into a developer family. My mother-in-law doesn’t build houses because she’s a bad person; she builds houses because there are millions of people in central and southern Florida because it’s 70 degrees and beautiful, and there are millions more coming. The question is whether you can put them in the right places so you’re not destroying the resources.

And yet Everglades restoration is a rare example in recent American environmental history where there’s any recognition that you’ve got to provision for the ecosystem.

That’s certainly the notion — that this is going to show we can coexist with the bugs and bunnies. It’s the possible model for the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and Louisiana’s coastal wetlands — even the Garden of Eden marshes in Iraq.

Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century. If we can’t figure out a way to share it, you’re going to see wars fought over water. Everglades restoration is an ideal way to demonstrate that we can manage our water so that there’s enough for sustainable agriculture, and for the people who are going to continue to come, but also for a healthy ecosystem.

Recently in southeast Florida a bunch of developers, including a former business partner and others close to Jeb Bush, have been pushing for extending an urban development boundary. Jeb actually stepped in and said no, you’re going to destroy Dade County’s water supply. It shocked the enviros because he’s made no secret that he’s not a big fan of theirs. But it was an incredibly progressive decision.

Your book suggests that south Florida’s particular combination of politics and ecology sometimes transforms politicians.

Probably the best example is [Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.)], who was once rated the most conservative senator in America. He was anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-United Nations, anti-taxes. He voted against Head Start. He’s a really conservative guy, but he fell in love with the Everglades. He always talks about how his son saw his first alligator there. He really got that this is going to be a model for whether we can live in harmony with nature.

Smith is the guy who, early in the book, is watching the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Bush v. Gore with a very serious rooting interest. And suddenly he walks out in the middle of the most important Supreme Court case in decades, the case that would decide the leader of the free world — and goes over to the White House to celebrate the passage of the Everglades restoration bill.

You ask Al Gore whether he thought he lost Florida over an environmental issue, supporting the proposed Homestead airport on the edge of the Everglades.

Well, when you lose by 500 votes, I guess you could say you sort of lost over everything, right? But that cost him thousands of votes. I talked to a lot of environmentalists who made no bones about it — they were banging on Gore trying to get him to take a stand, and when he didn’t they started working for Ralph Nader. They encouraged him to come down and beat up Gore over this very issue. And he did. So there’s no question it had an impact. You could argue that in the long run, they might have been happier with an airport, and with a different president who had written a book about the environment.

It’s a little bit tragic, the story of the split between the enviros and the Clinton administration over the Everglades. To vastly oversimplify, the first issue that popped up was the Everglades Forever Act, which basically was about phosphorus pollution coming off the sugar fields. The Clinton administration cut a deal that involved Big Sugar paying a few hundred million dollars and effecting the largest nutrient pollution cleanup in the history of the world, and thought it had done a wonderful thing. But enviros said it was a horrible sellout. From that moment forward, Bruce Babbitt and some of his aides essentially decided the enviros didn’t know what they were talking about and there was no point in listening to them.

The nutrient pollution cleanup has been a terrific project that has done a lot of good. It certainly wasn’t a pure sellout. Yet the enviros were also right that it’s not enough, that the Everglades is just being poisoned a lot slower.

What are the challenges of reporting on the environment in the current political atmosphere?

For some people, any book about the environment means you’re immediately a leftist. And for other people, any book that doesn’t declare the sugar industry to be the root of all evil means you’re in the tank. That’s been kind of depressing as a journalist — to find that for so much of the country now every story seems to be viewed through a partisan lens instead of actually responding to facts.

As you depict it, the environmentalist scene in south Florida really seems to encapsulate the current tensions in the movement as a whole.

I do think you can see the story of American environmentalism through the Everglades. In the beginning they rose up to stop the hunters — an extractive industry — realizing that it couldn’t be right to wipe out every plume bird in Florida so that women could wear feathers on their hats. Stopping that slaughter was one of the country’s first great conservation victories. But ultimately these same people who saved the birds were the biggest advocates of draining the Everglades. The Everglades was a wasteland and conserving that land meant using it.

By mid-century there was a realization that stopping hunters and fishers was not enough to save a place — you’ve got to protect the land as well. Everglades National Park was actually the first one that was preserved not just for spectacular scenery, but also for its unique biology.

Prior to that the locations of the national parks tended to coincide with places that you couldn’t run a railroad over anyway.

Exactly. And they were “ooh and aah” parks. The Everglades is a more of a “hmm” place. So understandably, people saw it as a big, inhospitable, forbidding, mushy, muddy swamp, and draining the swamp was a metaphor for solving a problem.

As the ecology movement sprang up, people realized that the health of national parks is affected by activities outside their borders, and simultaneously they realized that people really care about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the landscapes we like, the fish that we eat.

Where do you think environmental advocacy goes from here?

I certainly don’t want to pretend to be any kind of spokesperson for the environmental movement — I’m just a reporter — but one thing that I’ve found shocking in this whole “Death of Environmentalism” debate is the notion that what environmentalists really need to do is help rebuild this grand coalition of the left to take back the country. That seems like crazy talk to me.

The best thing that environmentalists have on their side is the environment. People actually like it. One of the lessons of the Everglades is that when you don’t write off one of the parties you can create a bidding war with both sides wanting to do the right thing. The idea that you should just say the Republicans hate the environment so screw ‘em seems horribly counterproductive, particularly when people are starting to realize that their aquifers depend on conservation, that their ecotourism and fishing economies depend on it.

Florida does loom large in the American environmental mind. A group here in New York has noted that the Army Corps 2007 budget has proposed $164 million for Everglades restoration, as compared to $600,000 for restoration of the waterways of our metropolitan area.

Everybody wants to be the next Everglades. When they were passing the restoration act, everybody went around saying, “It’s America’s Everglades.” So now in Louisiana, they’re calling it “America’s wetland.” There’s clearly the idea that maybe lightning can strike again.

While I certainly understand this kind of complaint — how come they’re getting $160 million and we’re getting bupkis — I do think that everybody should care about the fate of that restoration plan. The Everglades is the world’s most beloved, intensely studied wetland. If the Everglades restoration can work, the 21st century could become an era of ecosystem restoration. But it will send a really bad message if it fails.