Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed land deal with the U.S. Sugar Corp. has the familiar anatomy of history repeating itself, in perverse reversal.
A hundred years ago, Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, donning an ego to match his ancestral name, bullied opponents to push ahead with his plan to drain the Everglades. To pay for it, he sold a half-million acres of state-owned Everglades land at fire-sale prices to a wealthy speculator, who subdivided the land and resold it at a 1,200 percent markup.
A Washington newspaper called the deal "one of the biggest land swindles in history," eerily anticipating criticism of the U.S. Sugar purchase, which includes original land Broward sold to the speculator. Like the Crist plan, Broward's plan was twisted up with ego, greed and politics. Like Crist, Broward was a governor who wanted to be a U.S. senator (he failed in two bids).
But the more important historical redundancy is this: No politician, from Broward to Crist, whether pursuing drainage or restoration, has stepped outside anthropomorphic boundaries to comprehend the Everglades on its own terms, to leave nature to determine the conditions that allow the River of Grass to flourish.
Nothing more than lousy consequences has come from trying to re-engineer America's greatest wetland.
Meddling led to a tragic outcome when the state encouraged thousands to settle below a feebly constructed containment dike along the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee, in the natural flow-way to the lower Glades. A hurricane in 1928 breached the dike, and some 2,000 people drowned.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a "comprehensive" flood-control project in 1948, creating a slow-motion environmental disaster. Extended out two decades, the project bulldozed the natural ecosystem of the Everglades into a fossil-fuel-powered artificial one and opened land for the expansion of sugar growing.
Engineered nature remained the ruling principle when the Clinton-Gore administration introduced the new era of restoration. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan of 2000 relied on secret meetings, unproven science and the Corps of Engineers' mechanistic dominion. The plan let agriculture stay put in the natural flow-way.
This last flaw is what Crist wishes to correct, and this is a commendable goal.
Yet Crist is charging ahead with a plan that restores past practices, not natural flow. Like those before, his is a complex scheme of engineering that depends on mechanical devices and continued intervention, so embedded in our sense of human superiority is our desire to control nature.
Only the wise trust the wisdom of nature. Leaving it to govern may seem a foolish Thoreauvian romanticism, but consider these facts.
Nature has a remarkable facility for rebounding from hurricanes, fires or earthquakes. Within a few years of scalding life from its sides, Mount St. Helens was turning green again. Nature has demonstrated similar wherewithal to overcome human impingement. Scientists are constantly impressed by the speed with which a damaged ecosystem begins to thrive when insulting sources have been removed.
Closer to the subject, the floral and faunal response after the state reopened impounded oxbows of the former Kissimmee River and left things alone was equivalent to springtime rejuvenation.
Scientists, and especially engineers, are incapable of restoring the Everglades. For one, remaking an ecology cannot be done with pumps and dikes and manufactured conservation areas, contrivances that the Crist plan retains.
For another, ecosystems are in constant flux, and flux is central to a system's good health. What the Everglades was before Broward is not what it would be today, in the absence of civilization's historic meddling or not. The methods scientists have thus far imagined for restoration are no less artificial than methods imagined by politicians.
Only nature can restore the Everglades.
So let Crist buy his land, but do not let him muck it up with the expensive technologies of engineered restoration. Buy more land instead, and more land until every restraint against natural restoration has been removed. Then step back and allow the Everglades to find its flow again.
This strategy may sound impossible; in truth, if restoration is the real goal, nothing else is possible.
Jack E. Davis is associate professor of history and Waldo W. Neikirk 2009-10 Term Professor at the University of Florida. He is the author of An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century.