Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
"Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams worrying away the uplifted land. Here is land tranquil in its quietude, serving not as the source of water but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe this spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country." President Harry S. Truman's address at the dedication of Everglades National Park, December 6, 1947.
[Figs. 10, 11, 12, 15] As President Truman pointed out to the crowd gathered to dedicate Everglades National Park more than 50 years ago, it's the rich diversity and profusion of plants and animals found in the Florida Everglades that make it a land worthy of preservation.
The country's third largest national park behind Yellowstone and Death Valley, Everglades National Park encompasses more than a 1.5 million acres of sawgrass prairies, hardwood hammocks, pinelands, mangrove forests, open waterways, and the park's centerpiece, a 50-mile-wide "River of Grass."
Stretching from the outskirts of Miami to the Gulf of Mexico, it's an area 20 percent larger than the state of Delaware that is reserved almost exclusively for wildlife and plant life. Thousands of species of plants and animals, some rare and exotic, are found here including such varied and remarkable creatures as saltwater crocodiles, alligators, panthers, manatees, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills.
The park's climate accounts for much of the variety of life found here. Located at the northernmost point in the tropical belt and the southernmost point in the temperate belt, the Everglades is a land where unusual combinations of trees and plants overlap. Temperate plants such as live oak (Quercus virginiana), willow, and myrtle migrated overland to the Everglades, while tropical varieties such as gumbo-limbo, royal palms (Roystonea elata), tree orchids, and airplants were carried from the West Indies by winds, waves, and migrating birds. About 70 percent of the 700 native plant species in the park are of tropical origin.
Everglades National Park has also been recognized as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve serving as one of a network of protected samples of the world's major ecosystem types. Without the efforts of a few determined individuals, however, there may not have ever been a park.
Many who came to South Florida during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed the Everglades as worthless land that cried out to be drained and put to good use. Others came, however, who saw the beauty of this unique land and the value of preserving it in its natural state. These early conservationists recognized the complexity of the Everglades ecosystem and they struggled to alert the public of the threats to the land's existence.
Ironically, the park's creation can be traced back to the devastation that was wrought upon the area's bird populations by plume hunters in the early 1900s. At the time there was a demand for bird feathers to adorn ladies' hats. As a result of overhunting, wading bird populations declined until local conservation groups hired wardens to protect bird rookeries. The murder of Audubon Warden Guy Bradley in 1905 led directly to legislation that outlawed plume hunting. This was the first conservation measure applied to the Everglades area.
In 1914 the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs successfully sought the establishment of a state park to protect Paradise Key, a large tropical hammock in the southeastern portion of what is now Everglades National Park. At the same time, efforts continued by others to penetrate and drain the rest of the Everglades.
When Henry Flagler was awarded much of the land in the Cape Sable area on the extreme southwestern tip of the peninsula in return for pushing his railroad all the way to Key West, his first instincts were to drain and develop the area. Although Flagler died in 1913, the effort continued. Canals were dug near the coast to help drain the low-lying land, and in 1916 the Ingraham Highway, named after Florida East Coast Railroad Vice President J.E. Ingraham, was pushed across the Everglades from Miami all the way to Cape Sable.
The company's goal of developing the cape proved largely unsuccessful, however, and in 1934, largely due to the park's foremost supporter, Ernest F. Coe, Congress passed the Everglades National Park bill. Following delays caused by the Great Depression and World War II, Everglades National Park was dedicated on December 6, 1947. Both Paradise Key and Flagler's Cape Sable land became part of the new park. Flagler's company parted with its holdings for $295,000.
Sometimes called the "Father of the Everglades," Ernest F. Coe was a native of New Haven, Connecticut, and a graduate of Yale University's School of Fine Arts in 1887. He and his wife Anna moved to Coconut Grove near Miami, in 1925, where he did landscape work and developed a penchant for exploring the Everglades.
His concern over the killing of birds and the removal of rare plants started him on a course of action that began in 1928 with a simple letter to Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service, outlining a proposal for a new national park. That same year he formed the Tropical Everglades National Park Association (later Everglades National Park Association) to push for the park's creation.
Interestingly, in 1930, a government-appointed inspection party came to Miami to tour the area and decide on lands for inclusion in the proposed park. Joining the group was Miami Herald journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who would 17 years later write The Everglades: River of Grass, the classic treatise on the Everglades that galvanized national support for the park and the Everglades ecosystem.
Nevertheless, Everglades National Park only protects a portion of the historic Everglades system, which exists at the end of a vast watershed that has been forever changed. Today the health of the park, and of its plant and animal communities, is still dependent upon a man-made system of canals, levees, and huge pumping stations that move water around South Florida.
For many years the need to maintain a natural regime of sheet-flow vital to the health of the Everglades ecosystem within the park was largely sacrificed to provide either farmland irrigation water or urban flood protection to other parts of South Florida. A constant outcry from state and national conservation organizations, along with a handful of lawsuits, has succeeded in at least improving the level of importance placed by politicians on restoring a natural flow to the remaining Everglades within the park.
The Everglades is a place where slight changes in elevation or salinity can create entirely different and distinct habitats, each with its own community of plants and animals. In a similar manner, changes in the historic wet and dry seasonal flows can, and have, altered the types of wildlife and plant life that survive here.
But don't visit the Everglades with a sad heart. Changes are under way for the better, and the wildlife and plant life survivesperhaps not as plentiful as in earlier times, but still in numbers to awe even the most veteran nature lover.
Birders and other wildlife enthusiasts will find a new wonder at every turn. Anglers can hire a guide or rent a boat and stalk redfish, snook, or tarpon. Hikers will find themselves walking through magnificent tropical hammocks, while canoeists and kayakers can explore mangrove creeks, hidden ponds, and deserted beaches.
To get the most out of the park, you may wish to extend your trip beyond the more well-worn visitor facilities. That can include a ride on one of the tour boats available at Flamingo, or a bicycle trip on the Snake Bight Trail. It can mean loading your canoe for a two-day to two-week adventure into the backcountry, or a half-day spent tooling along endless miles of twisted waterway and broad inland bays by motorboat.
The park can be sampled at many levels, with something new to offer at each one. If you take time to learn while you play, and to look a little more closely at the land, you'll be rewarded with a fresh understanding of the wonders nature can produce.
Visitor centers are located near the main entrance, in Royal Palm (within the park), in Flamingo, in Shark Valley, and at the Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City. The main entrance is open daily, 24 hours a day.
The only lodging and food service in the park is in Flamingo. Campgrounds are located at Long Pine Key and Flamingo within the main park and at Chekika, a disconnected portion of the park 26 miles north of the main entrance on State Road 997.
The Everglades backcountry is open for primitive camping at any of 43 designated sites. Reservations must be made in person no more than 24 hours before entering the backcountry. There is a fee for backcountry camping.
There are no service stations in the park. Gasoline only is available at the Flamingo Marina. It's a good idea to enter the park with a full tank of gas. Cars, trucks, RVs, campers, and vans can travel easily on the paved roads within the park. Airboats, swamp buggies, and ATVs are prohibited. Airboat and swamp buggy rides are available at several private concessions outside the park.
Universally accessible facilities and trails can be found throughout the park. All of the park's visitor centers, most interpretive trails, some of the Flamingo boat tours, and the Shark Valley tram tours are wheelchair accessible. There are accessible campsites at all three campgrounds in the park, and one primitive backcountry campsite, at Pearl Bay, is accessible to people with mobility impairments. Audio programs and captioned movies are available at most visitor centers.