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Restoration: You Can’t Get There From Here

An ambitious plan to restore the Everglades to a pre-development condition may be plain impossible.
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First of three parts. In part 2, we look at the political and engineering jockeying required to mount the restoration. And in part 3, the buyout of U.S. Sugar provides a different kind of restoration — to a time when big and bold was the hallmark of conservation.

The accompanying introductions and activist reaction were equally expansive last month when the state of Florida announced plans to buy out U.S. Sugar, an 80-year-old industry camped on 187,000 acres of South Florida real estate needed to help restore the Everglades.

Gov. Charlie Crist called the $1.75 billion acquisition “as monumental as the creation of our nation’s first park, Yellowstone.” U.S. Sugar President Robert Buker labeled the moment “a watershed event in national conservation history.”

Attorney David Guest, with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told The New York Times, “This is about putting it back to the way it was in the 1890s,” referring to the last decade the Everglades enjoyed before a succession of Florida governors was elected explicitly with the goal of draining the land.

“What will happen is that if you come back here in 20 years, it will look indistinguishable from the way it looked before the white man arrived,” Guest added.

Perhaps to the casual — and hopeful — eye, it will look that way. But the reality, as Guest himself elaborated, is that we will never be able to completely undo the century of methodical man-made intervention that has made the damaged Everglades what they are today.

Engineers and conservationists don’t actually hope to restore the area to how it was in 1890. Rather, they’re hoping to restore a semblance of the region’s naturally functioning water flow, a more specific goal that renders the phrase “Everglades restoration” slightly out of touch — or maybe too optimistic.

“The true term of ‘restoration’ would be to put it back the way it was, and when we use that word, that’s what most people think,” said Jonathan Ullman, the South Florida/Everglades senior representative for the Sierra Club. “The word ‘restoration’ is a very emotional one: ‘Everglades restoration,’ just the sound of it, sounds so wonderful and noble. And that’s why the government keeps using it. … Otherwise, they would just say, ‘Everglades re-plumbing project.’”

Stu Appelbaum, the local deputy for restoration program management with the Army Corps of Engineers, has another suggestion: “Scientists,” he said, “tell us that ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘repair’ may be a more scientifically accurate term.”

The words used to talk about the Everglades — or any other sensitive environment, for that matter — have played a major role in reshaping perceptions of them over time. It seems only fair now that we get this last image right.

Explorer Buckingham Smith gave us one of our first pictures of the Everglades when he wrote in 1848 that “the abiding impression is the utter worthlessness to civilized man, in its present condition, for any useful or practical object.” That sentiment underscored the next century of Everglades policy: The swamp only meant something if it could be drained and turned into useful agricultural land.

Long before talk turned to “restoration,” the word was “reclamation”: We needed to reclaim the land from the invading water. The water itself — what we are today spending millions of dollars to reintroduce — was viewed not as a natural element of the landscape but as hostile flooding.

To control it, people cut the flow from Lake Okeechobee down to the Everglades with dikes and built hundreds of miles of canals, creating south of the lake the Everglades Agricultural Area, where U.S. Sugar is located. Successively bigger projects were undertaken when smaller ones failed. The ecological impact (a drained Everglades) wasn’t just a sad byproduct of the efforts — it was the very goal of them.

As the land dried out, fires burned off soil that had built up over centuries. Water flushing out to the ocean damaged sensitive estuaries. Encroaching development also cut the Everglades to half their original size — and rehabilitation won’t undo that.

A century ago, the Florida Legislature created the Everglades Drainage District, clarifying intentions in the area. That name was later changed to the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, suggesting an equally suspicious view of Mother Nature. When thinking changed again, the state body became the gentler South Florida Water Management District, the group today responsible for negotiating and managing the U.S. Sugar deal.

“This is the same philosophy that applied to wetlands in general: They were regarded as places to make useful for humans,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “The idea of recognizing that natural systems have value is a concept that conservationists have embraced for years and the general public is starting to come around to now.”

Part of the problem with it having taken so long is the amount of damage that has accumulated in the interim. The same is true of many of our national parks, the places we think of as pristine as it gets. We now know that even Yellowstone, the exemplar invoked by Charlie Crist, is marred by cascading man-made impacts we don’t know if we can correct. And that’s a habitat we’ve been trying to protect for years.

A recent series of studies on six national parks in the West, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, unveiled dramatic changes throughout the ecosystem caused by the disappearance of large predators like wolves and cougars at the top of the food chain. And those animals were displaced or killed in the early 1900s.

“The track record is a fairly consistent one,” said Robert Beschta, one of the researchers at Oregon State working on that project. “Large herbivores took over, and in the absence of these large predators, they’ve been bringing these areas to their knees. They’ve just consumed vegetation to the point where flowers are gone; woody species are in tough, tough shape, hanging on. We’ve seen what I would consider a fairly disastrous ecology.”

Research like Beschta’s suggests that “restoration” may be a Pollyannaish word in many places. It’s not that conservation projects under the label aren’t worthwhile. Rather, they should be accompanied, in the public imagination, by a more realistic expectation of what’s possible — and with an understanding that some damage can’t be undone.

In South Florida, Tom Van Lent, the lead scientist for the Everglades Foundation, offered an image of what can happen thanks to the U.S. Sugar deal. It’s a view more nuanced than just returning the land to “what it once was.”

“I think we can paint a picture of the 3 million acres of Everglades that’s ‘restored’ pretty easily,” he said. “It’ll have a reliable source of water to protect the Everglades from drought so it doesn't catch fire so easily like it did this year. The water would be clean. And the water we’d use is water we’re currently throwing away through the Gulf of Mexico.”

Guest, whose litigation through Earthjustice helped set off the events that led to the U.S. Sugar deal, suggested another way of looking at today’s undertaking in the context of a complicated history.

“The biggest problem in the Everglades was that they never should have built the (Everglades Agricultural Area),” he said. “You can’t blame them. It was a mistake that was really designed wrong, and it was way too big, and it was going to put a whole lot more stress on the environment and the water supply. By buying U.S. Sugar, we’re undoing the mistake. And people almost never do that; they never undo big mistakes.”

The mistake, in other words, is worth undoing even if we can’t hope for the same from every one of its consequences.

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