In The Swamp, Michael Grunwald—winner of the George Polk Award for national reporting and the Worth Bingham Award for investigative reporting—tells the dramatic story of the Everglades, which was once America's last frontier, and is now the focus of the largest environmental restoration project in the history of the earth. “It is the story of a remarkable swath of real estate and the remarkable people it has attracted,” he writes, “from the aboriginals who created the continent's first permanent settlement in the Everglades, to the U.S. soldiers who fought a futile war of ethnic cleansing in the Everglades, to the dreams and schemers who have tried to settle, drain, tame, develop, sell, preserve and restore the Everglades. It's a story about hubris and unintended consequences, about the mistakes man has made in his relationship with nature and his unprecedented effort to fix them.”
Grunwald's evocative prose brings the natural Everglades to life: “It looked like the world's largest and grassiest puddle, or the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest-moving stream. It had the squish and the scruff of an untended yard after a downpour, except that this yard was larger than Connecticut.” But he is just as vivid in his descriptions of the visionaries who transformed the swamp and opened South Florida to development: Hamilton Disston, an energetic northern industrialist who made the first attempt to drain the Everglades; Henry Flagler, the brilliant Standard Oil tycoon who brought the railroad—and rich northerners—to the eastern rim of the swamp; and the colorful Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who devoted his administration to battling nature to create an “Empire of the Everglades.”
For decades, most conservationists cheered the march of the dredges; in fact, draining useless wetlands was considered the essence of conservation. Even the ghastly hurricane of 1928—which killed 2,500 people in the Everglades, the second-worst natural disaster in U.S. history—failed to dampen the region's missionary-like zeal for development. After World War II, some early environmentalists helped preserve the southern Everglades as a national park, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set out to tame the rest of the swamp with the largest water-control project in history. The project has helped make South Florida safe for seven million residents, 40 million annual tourists, the world's largest concentration of golf courses, and an agricultural empire that produces one of ever five teaspoons of American sugar, but it has also helped destroy the native habitats of countless species, while threatening the water supply and eroding the quality of life for its human inhabitants. In December 2000, the federal government directed the Army Corps to try to undo its own damage and put South Florida on a path to sustainability by restoring natural flows through the Everglades. But as Grunwald reports, the $10 billion project has been riddled with problems from the start.
As this comprehensive look at the history, ecology and future of the Everglades unfolds, The Swamp unearths a wealth of new information:
* Native Americans apparently established North America's first permanent settlement on the mosquito-choked fringes of the Everglades.
* The little-known Second Seminole War, a seven-year effort to drive Indians out of the Everglades, was America's longest, costliest, and bloodiest Indian war; Grunwald calls it “America's first Vietnam.” It cost almost ten times what the country paid for Florida in the first place; General Zachary Taylor was the only U.S. commander to burnish his reputation in Florida, earning the nickname “Old Rough and Ready,” but his private papers show he considered the war futile.
* Governor Broward, a Florida hero who has been immortalized as the namesake of Broward County, accepted a gigantic bribe from an Everglades developer.
* South Florida has quietly deteriorated into a state of ecological collapse. Mysterious “red tides” wipe out dolphins, manatees, and oysters in its estuaries; its coral reefs are dying in droves, and Lake Okeechobee—once known as “the heart and lungs of the Everglades”—has turned the color of espresso. Ninety percent of the Everglades' wading birds have vanished, and it is now home to 69 endangered species.
* In 1999, Florida Governor Jeb Bush met for an hour with lobbyists for Enron's water subsidiary, and seriously considered a plan to sell them the water of the Everglades—not long before the company's spectacular collapse. “We are going to get our ass handed to us on this,” one of Bush's aides wrote in a memo obtained by Grunwald.
* In an interview, Al Gore admitted to Grunwald that an obscure battle over the proposed Homestead Airport at the edge of the Everglades may have cost him the 2000 presidential election.
* In an interview, an Army Corps official predicted that the restoration project will eventually cost $80 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in American history. Grunwald also publishes internal Army Corps memos warning that the project is already dramatically over budget, behind schedule, and off track.
As the future of the Everglades hangs in the balance, efforts to restore some semblance of its natural flow will serve as a touchstone for other conservation efforts in the United States and around the globe. The lessons learned from the destruction of the south Florida ecosystem resonate in newsworthy events such as Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, where the Army Corps is planning a $14 billion restoration project modeled on the Everglades, and a similar multi-billion-dollar effort to undo Saddam Hussein's willful destruction of the “Garden of Eden” marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq.
“Reviving ecosystems is the challenge of the future,” says Grunwald at the close of his informative and provocative book. “It will require Americans to think on a landscape scale, to clean up their messes, to gore someone's ox now and then. . . . The Everglades is a moral test. It will be a test of our willingness to restrain ourselves, to share the earth's resources with the other living things that moveth upon it, to live in harmony with nature. If we pass, we may deserve to keep the planet.”