Getting to Know the Everglades
At the southern tip of the Florida peninsula lies Everglades National Park, a small portion of this vast wilderness, plus a part of the Ten Thousand Islands and much of Florida Bay, which has been set aside as a preserve. It contains over 1.4 million acres of land and water with an average elevation of only 5 feet above sea level. Plus it harbors fourteen endangered species, including the American crocodile, manatee, Florida panther, Everglades mink, peregrine falcon, short-tailed hawk, and three kinds of sea turtles — hawksbill, green, and loggerhead.
Fresh water from the north flows slowly and gently through the Glades in a shallow river, known as the Shark Valley Slough, 50 miles wide and only 6 inches deep, that empties into Florida Bay on the Gulf Coast.
The Everglades rests on a foundation of solid limestone bedrock, which geologists estimate to be over 100,000 years old. A substance much like peat called marl accumulates in pockets in the limestone bed. Over time, this builds to a thickness that can support trees, which grow into hammocks. In some areas of the Glades, clusters of hardwood trees, including mahogany, form dense hammocks ranging in size from a few feet to hundreds of acres. Here palms, live oaks, pond apple, and woody vines grown in profusion. On these trees in the dim light of the hammocks grow orchids, ferns, and vines. The Park has a total of 1,000 species of plants, including 120 species of trees.
Sawgrass, often referred to as Everglades river grass, gets its name from the its saw-tooth-edged blades. It can grow as high as 10 feet in dense stands that cover acres of the Glades. Many forms of wildlife use sawgrass as a source of food and nesting sites for a variety of birds and animals.
As the river nears the ocean and fresh water mixes with salt water, the marshy grasses (muhly grass, Everglades beardgrass, arrowhead, and sawgrass), hammocks, and pine woods give way to dense thickets of mangroves, important for the food and shelter they offer both land and sea life. The level of the river changes with the seasons. Spring rains turn into torrential downpours and thunderstorms during the summer, dumping up from 60 to 100 inches of water on the Glades. But during winter, the water slows to a trickle, leaving only puddles.
The origin of the name “Everglades” is obscure. The Calusa Indians originally called it pa-hay-okee, or “grassy water.” According to legend, early maps designated the area as the “River Glades.” On later maps the name became “Ever Glades” and finally, the term “Everglades” appeared on a map in 1823.
The Calusa Indians roamed the Everglades before Columbus discovered America. And it was into this area that the remnants of the proud Seminole Indian tribes retreated before the advance of white settlers. A few Miccosukee Indians still live within the vast wilderness of the Glades outside the Park. The Glades originally encompassed all the marshland south of Lake Okeechobee. Until 1915, only explorers, hunters, and local Native Americans knew these wild sawgrass marshes and dense hammocks. The following year, the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs acquired the Royal Palm Hammock and turned it over to the State of Florida, which then established Royal Palm State Park as a wildlife sanctuary. Ernest F. Coe, known as “the Father of the Everglades,” began a campaign to create an Everglades National Park in the 1920s. Civilian conservation workers, under the WPA program, built shelters and trails between 1934 and 1935. But it took another twelve years until President Harry S Truman signed a bill setting aside 2,000 square miles of the Glades as Everglades National Park, dedicated on December 6, 1947. During that same year, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book The Everglades: River of Grass, which created a public awareness of the fragility of the Glades. But the Park covers only 12 percent of the Everglades.
To further draw attention to the plight of the Glades, the United Nations designated the Park a Biosphere Reserve, and in 1979 it designated it a World Heritage Site. Both put Everglades National Park under further protection against encroachment by developers.
It's here in this protected environment that you become aware of the vital links that hold the Glades together — the alligators that dig for water with their tails, the tree hammocks that provide sanctuary to animals during the wet season — and the importance of the cycle of wet and dry seasons. The alligators have become known as “the keepers of the Glades.” During the dry season, they dig “gator holes,” which provide temporary homes for other wildlife until the rains return. Wispy willows surround these gator holes. Tree islands or hammocks dot the endless sawgrass expanse. Though only a few feet above sea level, they're fertile enough to support various types of trees. In the slightly higher areas, pinewoods prevail.
But the biggest danger to the Glades is development. As Florida's population grows, the demand for fresh water and land for farming, roads, and housing is causing damage to this fragile ecosystem. Over 1,500 miles of canals have been built to divert fresh water away from the Glades, and the poison from agricultural chemicals from farmlands around Lake Okeechobee is making its way into the Glades.