Masterpiece on the environment
This op-ed appeared Nov. 11 in The Miami Herald.
By: Jack E. Davis
Jack E. Davis, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida, is a specialist in American environmental history and author of the forthcoming book, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Environmental Century.
When Dade County relocated its public library to a new building in 1985, the last several hundred books were moved by a human chain. The Everglades: River of Grass, the last of them all, was carried by a runner like a torch.
Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ classic. When it appeared in 1947, it convinced the nation that a place historically dismissed as a vulgar unvarying wasteland was actually a life-giving river, one that originally flowed 120 untroubled miles on a three-month pilgrimage to deliver sustenance to rare plants and animals and to charge the all-important Biscayne Aquifer. Four weeks after the book’s publication, President Truman dedicated Everglades National Park. Ever since, America’s greatest wetland has been known as the River of Grass.
The book was similarly destined to stay indefinitely in print, a credit to Douglas’ eloquent and enduring warning against civilization’s headlong sprawl into a sensitive environment. She had not intended to write a call to arms, but in the 1960s, after the Army Corps of Engineers ”comprehensive” flood-control project emptied out nearly half the region’s water, activists embraced her book as the green bible of Everglades environmentalism. Comparisons with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac followed. The book convinced environmentalists to persuade Douglas, who as early as 1959 knew something was amiss with the Corp’s project, to become a full-fledged activist.
At age 79, she scaled back writing projects, organized Friends of the Everglades and leapt into the national consciousness as the most vivid spokesperson for Everglades ”repair.” She continued to head her organization until age 100, gave her last news conference at 104 and died at 108. She was the holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and namesake of a national wilderness area (a distinction belonging to only 15 individuals).
If Douglas were alive today and asked to issue a report card on America’s stewardship of the Everglades, the grades would be disappointing. She would praise the state for allocating $2 billion over the past seven years for restoration, much of it going toward the purchase of sensitive land and the partial restoration of the Kissimmee River. But she would penalize the Legislature for postponing pollution limits to the benefit of the sugar industry. Various agencies would earn good marks for giving battle against the diaspora of invasive plants, but to aficionados who release exotic reptiles upon the beleaguered wetlands and to growth merchants who inch development’s rim deeper into it, she would react with schoolmarm reproach.
She would place primary fault for a poor overall grade with the executive branch of the federal government. With President Bush’s recent veto of long-delayed restoration funding — which Congress voted to override — and his Interior Department’s removal of the Everglades from the U.N.’s list of endangered World Heritage sites, one can imagine her retrieving words she intoned against President Reagan’s indifference in the 1980s. He “set us back 50 years . . . I don’t think he gives a damn about the environment.”
But one should be clear: Bush has resisted funding a project she would dislike herself, one with a familiar and ominous boast in its name: ”comprehensive.” Passed by Congress to bipartisan fanfare 20 months after her death, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan drew a strong rebuke from Friends of the Everglades and the Sierra Club. Both declared it a massive water-management project that awards resource priorities to agriculture and bloated municipalities over the Everglades ecosystem. Restoration thus far has largely centered around the expansion of water-conservation areas, or so-called filtering swamps, and to date they have spurred the growth of native vegetation and the return of animal life.
Douglas, however, never liked conservation areas because they represent a commercial resource for agriculture and developers and they allow bureaucrats to shift water about the Everglades at will. When flooded to keep farms dry and to store water for later use, the conservation areas potentially destroy habitat, alter the breeding capacity of fickle wading birds and drown animals. The plan also allows the perpetuation of the Everglades Agricultural Area, a colossal obstruction in the ecosystem’s natural water flow. The Everglades could not be the River of Grass, she would argue (and did), as long as the hindrance of farming remained. Finally, leaving the Corps — destroyers not restorers — to implement the plan would provoke from her apocalyptic comparisons to the fox’s charge of the hen house.
Sustenance for aquifer
For Douglas, repair — fixing the Kissimmee River, removing the levees, moving out agriculture and the Corps — meant not only the renewed vigor of the River of Grass but plentiful sustenance for the Biscayne Aquifer, the principal drinking-water source for the region’s people.
Douglas was an environmentalist because she was a humanitarian. She valued plants and animals no more nor less than humans. Protecting one over the other was at odds with the great web of life itself. Protecting the whole was the right thing to do. Douglas did a lot of right things in her life, but none so abiding as to write a book 60 years ago that bears lessons for today.