Michael Grunwald, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, has written a book on the Everglades called "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise" (Simon & Schuster, $27).
Taking readers through the history of settlement in South Florida to the present day, the book recounts monumental attempts to drain the Everglades in the early 20th century, the consequences of that and the struggle to bring back what was lost without, as Grunwald puts it,"goring someone's ox." Grunwald spent about two years in South Florida conducting research for the book. Prior to writing it, Grunwald also wrote two long series on Everglades restoration for the Washington Post and investigative pieces on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He spoke about his book to a crowd of about 150 people at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center. After the discussion, he answered questions for the Daily News.
— Kate Spinner / Daily News staff writer
WHAT THE AUTHOR SAYS: Grunwald reflects on why restoration is needed
Q. Why is it important for people to know about the Everglades?
A. There are a few reasons. The first is it's a spectacular and mysterious and unique place. God ain't making any more Everglades.
But I would also say that even if you don't care about the panthers and the gators and the otters and the royal palms and the wild orchids and all the other magical things in there, if you live in South Florida, what's bad for the Everglades is probably bad for you.
The aquifers that store South Florida's water, drinking water, sit right underneath the Everglades, and what I'm hearing more and more is as people have sprawled into the Everglades, it has hurt their own quality of life — sitting in traffic all day long, their kids are in overcrowded schools and you're starting to lose that sense of place that made South Florida, South Florida.
And then, if you don't care about the critters and you don't live in Florida, you should still care about the Everglades because now they're about to start the largest environmental project in the history of the planet to try to restore it.
It's the model for projects in the Chesapeake Bay and Louisiana coastal wetlands and the Great Lakes and even the Garden of Eden marshes in southern Iraq, so South Florida is really the place where we're going to figure out whether man can live in harmony with nature.
It's sort of the ultimate test of sustainable development.
Q. Talk about how your obsession with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led you to the Everglades.
A. In 2000, I was investigating the Corps for the Washington Post, and I was writing about how they were cooking the books for a lot of their economic studies to justify basically boondoggle construction projects. Usually they're building dams or building navigation locks, and a lot of them had pretty serious environmentally destructive qualities.
But while I was doing it, I heard that the Army Corps was in charge of this mega-project to restore the Florida Everglades, and that this was the same Army Corps that had helped destroy the Everglades. So that, in itself, just seemed like a really interesting way to write about man's abusive relationship with nature and his efforts to make amends.
Q. The Everglades National Park people didn't like the original Everglades Restoration Plan because it wasn't restoration. How did a plan that wasn't restoration get passed as restoration? A. At the risk of sounding like a flak, I do talk about it in pretty good detail in the book. It was partly people letting hope get the better part of experience. It was partly a political calculation that this was the best that you were going to get, because Florida's economic interests are so powerful, that if the sugar industry and the rock mining industry and the development industry and the water utilities weren't on board, that you'd never get anything to save the Everglades.
And frankly, there were some environmental groups who, at the time, seemed a lot more interested in telling their funders that they were saving the Everglades than making sure that the plan was as good as it could be.
In fairness, I think a lot of them felt that there would be adaptive management and that perhaps the plan would get better in the future and that 2000 was this real moment in history, where you had such political pressure to get something, that this was the time to do it.
But some of the groups really didn't want to hear about the problems with the plan; they just wanted to talk about passing it.
Q. Is the plan getting better?
A. I haven't really seen a lot of evidence about that. I write about this one memo in the book where the guy who's overseeing the plan for the Army Corps in Washington says we're already way behind schedule, way over budget and this isn't restoration at all.
I do see some signs that people in South Florida are getting tired of runaway sprawl and the way it's starting to affect their lives, and that could lead to better decision-making. But the actual plan is still pretty much the plan.
To the extent it's changed, it's mostly been realizations that some of the silver bullets that the water managers had been counting on to store some of this water for this project aren't really going to work.
There doesn't really seem to be a Plan B right now.
Q. Has there been any progress, or are we just spinning in circles and repeating past mistakes?
A. They've bought some land, and that will be helpful because once land is in the public domain, that makes it awful hard to develop it.
There has been some progress, for instance, on the modified water deliveries plan, which is sort of Everglades restoration before there was Everglades restoration. It's been stalled for 17 years and the price tag has increased 500 percent, but there's some signs that they may at least be starting to do something with it.
And the Army Corps actually has increased the amount of bridge that they will build to let water underneath Tamiami Trail as part of that project. It's still not nearly as much as the scientists would like, but I would say those are signs of progress.
You also see signs that the Army Corps is at least hearing the outrage. When you see 500 people going to a water management meeting in Fort Myers because they're upset about red tide, and when you see (Gov.) Jeb Bush stop a sprawl development project in Dade County because he's worried about the aquifers underneath the Everglades and the well fields over there, I think those are some sort of positive signs that people are starting to take the ecosystem seriously.
Q. What is the biggest challenge standing in the way of Everglades restoration?
A. If you had to pick one challenge, it would probably be growth management.
There are 7 million people down here, 50 million tourists, and there are going to be a lot more people coming because it's 75 degrees and beautiful in the middle of the winter. So people are going to come from Buffalo and Cleveland and Havana and Port-au-Prince.
The question is, where are you going to put them and can you sort of carve out a place for people, as well as a place for the critters and a place for the natural flows? Some of my environmentalist friends, they're very cynical about it, and it's understandable given the history because economic interests have historically won the battle for water against the Everglades and the battle for power.
But I'm maybe not as pessimistic as them, because I think people are starting to understand the connection between a healthy ecosystem and a healthy economy and I think people are tired of the way their paradise is being destroyed.
So, I think there is going to be a lot of pressure for people to show results, and if the Everglades Agricultural Area becomes another Broward County or if Southwest Florida keeps sprawling east into Big Cypress and the Everglades, it's hard to see how it's going to get done.
We're asking the Army Corps to paint this restoration masterpiece, and we're shrinking the canvas every day.
So that's the challenge, but I don't think it's impossible. I think it's just going to take political will and grassroots organizing of the sort that I write about in the book, (that) happened during the late '60s and early '70s — and not so much these days where it's not the same kind of reaching out to hunters and reaching out to fishermen and creating alliances with labor unions and developers and supporting development where it should be done and opposing it where it shouldn't.
You don't see that kind of grassroots organizing, reaching out to minority communities. I haven't seen so much of it.
Q. What was one of the most striking things that you found when you were doing your research for this book?
A. One of the really fascinating things is the way so many of the people who have destroyed the Everglades have meant well.
I knew that we used to think of nature as something to be tamed, and now we think of it as something to be treasured. But I didn't realize that the people who led the fight to tame nature were the conservationists of their day; that Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, he dug those canals that led to the drainage of the Everglades ultimately, not because he was rapacious but because he was trying to save the Everglades for the people; that John Gifford, the guy who started the melaleuca infestation in South Florida, was South Florida's greatest conservationist of his day. He founded Conservation Magazine.
And so there's, I hope, a kind of deep lesson in there about unintended consequences and hubris and how we don't know what we don't know. That was certainly one of the striking things.
And then since the book was published, a striking thing has been how much people down here care. There's really been such an overwhelming response. People are really hungry for knowledge about this stuff. I think people understand that if we have a better understanding of how we got here, that it can help people get to where they need to go in the future.
WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAY: Critics praise book's reporting
John G. Mitchell of the Washington Post: In recent years, writers have devoted a lot of ink to the tortured history of south Florida's Everglades. But no one has nailed that story as effectively, as hauntingly and as dramatically as Michael Grunwald does in "The Swamp" ...
Guy Martin of the New York Times Book Review: Michael Grunwald ... understands that South Florida is South Florida because so much miscreancy has gone into the making of it. His first book, "The Swamp," a biting, exhaustively reported work of environmental history, tracks the story of the central "obstacle" in the development and settlement of the peninsula, namely, its water. The Everglades were hostile to settlement. For that effrontery, the United States decided to wring this wilderness dry.
William Grimes of the New York Times: Mr. Grunwald ... tells three intertwined stories in The Swamp. Beginning at the beginning, he describes the creation of the Everglades, the unique "river of grass" whose exotic wildlife and vegetation held naturalists like John James Audubon spellbound, and traces the ill-advised efforts to tame it. His second theme is politics and power, the high-stakes battles over the Everglades waged by environmentalists, developers, sugar barons and politicians. Finally, there is "the swamp" itself, whose intricate, far-flung ecological system Mr. Grunwald evokes in loving detail, from the twists and turns of the Kissimmee River to the shores of Lake Okeechobee to the herons, mangroves and purple gallinutes of the Glades.
Larry Lebowitz of the Miami Herald: To his credit, Grunwald lets the facts of the ecological collapse and unintended consequences of explosive growth and flood control projects tell the story rather than letting the book deteriorate into an anti-progress screed.
• Read more reviews of "The Swamp" at: www.booknoise.net/swamp/reviews.html
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of "The Swamp," pages 181-182:
The developments (in South Florida during the 1920s land boom) were served by two new highways slicing through the Everglades, bringing the Tin Lizzie to America's last frontier.
In 1923, a convoy of "Tamiami Trail Blazers" made front-page news around the world by driving from Fort Myers to Miami, even though there was still a forty-mile gap in the road. The journey took three weeks, nearly as long as (South Florida Railroad president James) Ingraham's trek on foot three decades earlier, as the caravan repeatedly bogged down in the soupy marsh.
The Trail Blazers might have starved if not for the deer hunting of their Indian guides, and an emergency airlift by the Miami Chamber of Commerce. But the heavy publicity persuaded Barron Gift Collier, a streetcar advertising entrepreneur who had bought one million acres of southwest Florida swampland, to finance the rest of the road.
The legislature showed its gratitude by establishing Collier County, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an enterprising journalist with a tendency to get carried away — she was once assigned to cover an enlistment ceremony during World War I, and ended up enlisting herself — wrote two poems celebrating the "greatness" of the highway, another position she would reconsider after its ecological impact became clear.