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To Tate's Hell Swamp and back

Rumbling across a scrubby landscape of white, sandy soil and stunted pine trees, the hydrologists and engineers in four-wheel-drive Blazers talk as if they're getting ready for war.

They point out huge culverts that will be ripped apart, deep drainage canals that will be filled in and dozens of miles of roads that will be dug up.

The ambitious plans are part of a mammoth effort to reverse one of the major feats of corporate America: the draining of thousands of acres of marshy, bear-infested land in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s to grow millions of pine trees for paper mills. If successful, the project may be the biggest land restoration feat in the nation.

"We're going to try to put it back the way Mother Nature intended it to be," said Douglas Barr, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water District.

The restoration initially will take place on 30,500 acres in Franklin County adjacent to the Apalachicola National Forest. The acreage is part of Tate's Hell Swamp, once a wetland haven for the Florida panther and other endangered species.

Florida is buying the tract through the state's highly touted Preservation 2000 program. Eventually, the state hopes to acquire more than 250,000 acres in and around the swamp to restore natural water flow and vegetation.

Tate's Hell Swamp, named for a man who disappeared into it in the late 1800s and was presumed eaten by alligators, once was like a big sponge that absorbed rainfall and helped maintain the ecological health of East Bay, the primary nursery of oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay, one of the most productive estuaries on the Gulf Coast.

The spongy ground acted as a huge storage tank that maintained stream flows even during severe dry spells. The gently flowing streams helped regulate salinity levels in the bays, and fed them a mixture of nutrients that nourished young shrimp, oysters and other marine life.

In the 1950s, however, when timber corporations dug hundreds of miles of deep drainage canals in a checkerboard pattern throughout the swamp, the land became more like a giant parking lot. The canals quickly shunted rainfall into the bays in torrents.

The occasional deluges upset the delicate ecology of the bays, known worldwide for their oysters and shrimp. The slugs of fresh water produced abnormally high nutrient and sedimentation levels, and low salinity and oxygen levels, that jeopardized the survival of young marine organisms.

The flora and fauna of Tate's Hell Swamp suffered.

"It was known to be a very special area of wild and scenic rivers, bear habitat _ one of the largest tracts like that left in the South," said George Wilson, land acquisition director for the Nature Conservancy.

Procter & Gamble, the household products conglomerate that bought most of the swamp in the 1950s, used the drained land to grow timber for paper mills.

When the draining began, destruction of the fragile environment was not deemed too high a price. There was little ecological awareness in the 1950s, and those who did object to drying out the land were overruled by promises of jobs and tax revenue from timber corporations.

Now, experts are saying that restoration is not only desirable for places like Tate's Hell Swamp, it is imperative. A recent report by a committee of the National Research Council says large-scale programs to restore damaged and polluted wetlands, rivers, streams, lakes and bays throughout the United States should be put into action promptly to prevent ecological damage.

"We can repair damaged ecosystems to a close approximation of the condition they were in before they were disturbed," said committee Chairman John Cairns Jr. of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are enthusiastic about the project, and the EPA is providing $300,000 for the first phase. The restoration effort may have wider impact _ the swamp is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint drainage basin, a 19,600 square mile area in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

"The basin is like one big jigsaw puzzle," says Chris Howell, resources management director for the Northwest Florida Water District. "What affects one part may also affect other parts."

The impact could be felt as far away as metro Atlanta, which gets more than 90 percent of its drinking water from the Chattahoochee. The river's water eventually flows into the gulf at Apalachicola Bay.