As a South Florida native who spent many years fishing, hiking and canoeing in the Everglades, I have watched this natural treasure come under assault from decades of pollution, overdevelopment, agricultural abuses and other human acts of greed that are exempt from rigorous government oversight.
I'm convinced that precious few of our elected officials have ever understood the value of the Everglades beyond its being a dumping ground and money pit. The best Floridians have been able to hope for is that their elected leaders at least acknowledge the role the vital ecosystem plays in providing clean drinking water for the most populous part of the state.
In a recent column for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, for example, Gov. Rick Scott wrote, "As Florida's economy continues to grow, it is essential that we work to protect and restore our Everglades."
But I wish the governor and all state legislators appreciated the Everglades as a living, natural place that has inherent value beyond our limited imaginations.
Imagine the emphasis the state would place on Everglades restoration if our lawmakers and citizenry understood it as Marjory Stoneman Douglas did — as a giver and protector of life, the vital ecosystem that stretches from north of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the waterways of Florida Bay and the coral reefs of the keys to the south.
"There are no other Everglades in the world," she wrote in her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. "They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them. … They are unique in their simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose."
There's hope, at least, that some legislators want to encourage this broader and more sophisticated appreciation. Last year, Sen. David Simmons, a Republican, and former Rep. Steve Perman, a Democrat, sponsored legislation making April 7, which is Douglas' birthday, the annual Everglades Day in Florida. It is largely a symbolic gesture, but one that acknowledges that Everglades stewardship must become a shared effort that reaches across party lines.
"The Everglades is a vital ecosystem and an important aspect of South Florida's tourism, agricultural, real estate, and recreational economies," Simmons said. "Dedicating April 7th as Everglades Day provides an opportunity for all of us to recognize the Everglades for its local, as well as global, significance."
The challenge is to not stop at symbolism. Last week, 45 advocates, including volunteers, retirees, students and Everglades Coalition groups from nine counties statewide, traveled by bus to Tallahassee "to educate" lawmakers on the vital and ongoing restoration efforts and remind them of the important economic issues at play.
During the last four years, as a result of financial and legislative support from the Obama administration, restoration projects in the Everglades, the largest of their kind in the world, have been going forward.
"We need strong leadership and support from our state officials to build on this momentum and fund restoration and water quality projects," said Dawn Shirreffs, Everglades Coalition co-chair. "Everglades restoration is a sound investment for Florida that could amount to up to $46.5 billion in gains to Florida's economy."
Shirreffs and other advocates aren't naive. They know they are in a tough battle. I was with them as they walked the hallways of the Capitol, as legislative leaders were fine-tuning a bill that would circumvent the "Polluter Pays" protection in the Florida Constitution. The measure would undercut the state's commitment to the Everglades by shifting the costs for clean up from polluters, particularly the sugar industry, to taxpayers, meaning the project will have to compete against other state needs.
From what I saw and heard, Everglades advocates have a lot of hard work ahead because too many legislators are in bed with polluters. They chose to ignore the detriment they're causing to the state's economy by not ensuring a long-term clean water supply and to future generations who may never get to see the Everglades in all its wonderful splendor.
Everglades Day and events surrounding it must become more than symbolic. Somehow, self-interested lawmakers must be convinced that a healthy River of Grass is more important than currying favor with special interests.