I first visited the Everglades in August 2000, when Congress was about to launch a multibillion-dollar project to save the swamp. The weather was muggy. Mosquitoes were swarming. I saw none of the majestic canyons or rugged cliffs that Americans associate with national parks. The Everglades seemed flat, wet and mushy. I must confess, my initial reaction was, Why would anyone want to save this?
Early explorers dreamed of draining the Everglades’s uninhabitable, soggy wasteland and creating a subtropical paradise. After a century of visionary schemes and swampland jokes, they made their dreams come true. The watershed stretching from Disney World down to the Keys now supports eight million residents. Even more than air-conditioning, bug spray or Social Security, water management made South Florida safe for one of the most amazing development booms in human history. It made the megalopolis possible, and I can’t be too critical without being hypocritical. I’m one of the eight million it keeps dry. Most of us now live in former wetlands, but we don’t like it when they get wet. We call animal control to report gators in our backyards; we forget we’re in their backyard.
The remnant Everglades is an extraordinary place: the panthers and royal palms and ghost orchids you see on postcards, the majestic wading birds that once darkened the South Florida sky, the bizarre flora and fauna found nowhere else, the silence of the wild minutes from the megalopolis. Still, it’s an acquired taste. Everglades was the first park protected for its biodiversity rather than its scenery. It’s less ooh-and-aah than hmm.
Environmentalists like to say the Everglades is a test; if we pass, we may get to keep the planet. It’s where we’re going to figure out whether man can live in harmony with nature. Right now the park is still dying. It’s hard to get people to save places they don’t love. It’s hard to get people to love places they don’t visit. And it’s hard to get them to visit places that don’t make them suck in their breath.