Mike Grunwald Speech - by Emily Reddy

03/17/06

On Thursday night, Washington Post reporter Mike Grunwald spoke to an audience of some 50 people about his new book "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise." His talk at St. Petersburg's Poynter Institute covered the history of man's interference in the Everglades over the past 150 years and present efforts to restore the Everglades. WMNF's Emily Reddy was there.


Mike Grunwald, who is originally from Long Island and lives in D.C., became interested in the Everglades while investigating a story on the Army Corps of Engineers. He took a two-year leave from his job at The Washington Post to write this treatise. Grunwald started his talk Thursday with an excerpt from the first government report on the Everglades, written in 1848 by Buckingham Smith. [Grunwald...Imagine a vast lake of fresh water, extending in every direction, from shore to shore, beyond the reach of human vision, ordinarily unruffled by a ripple on its surface, studded with thousands of islands of various sizes. And as you draw near an island the beauty of the scene is increased by the rich foliage and the blooming flowers of the wild mytle and the honeysuckle. The profound and wild solitude of the place, the solumn silence that pervades it, add to awakened and excited curiousity feelings, bordering on awe.]

However, the rest of Smith's report was not so glowing. The Everglades were worthless and they had to go. [Grunwald...Smith concluded that the Everglades was "suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin or the resort of pestulential reptiles" and should be eliminated as soon as possible. He dreamed of getting rid of all that "unruffled water," converting this wasteland "as useless as the deserts of Africa" into something productive and useful for mankind.]

Grunwald then shared his own discription of the Everglades from a passage in his book. [Grunwald...It was a vast sheet of shallow water, spread across a seemingly infinite prairie of serated sawgrass. A liquid expanse of muted greens and browns extending to the horizon. It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded. Or a tundra, except melted. Or a wheat field, except wild. It was studded with green teardrop shaped islands of tangled trees and scraggley shrubs and specked with white spider lillies and violet blue pickoral weeds. But mostly, it looked like the world's largest and grassiest puddle, or the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest moving stream. It had the squish and the scruff of an untended yard after a downpour, except that this yard was larger than Connecticut.]

Between Smith's report in 1848 and Grunwald's recent visit, the Everglades has been reduced in size by half. Politicians, railroad tycoons and a swelling population spent that time draining and developing the area. It is only in the last forty years that a conservation movement has begun. Grunwald explains that the remaining 18,000 square miles of Everglades still faces many problems. [Grunwald... Sometimes too dry, sometimes too wet. It's polluted by nutrients from sugar fields and suburbs. It's dammed and diverted by levies, highways, and canals. Lake Okeechobee is in melt down. And whenever it gets high water managers who don't want 1928 to happen again blast billions of gallons into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, destroying their delicate balance of fresh and salt water. We're starting to see fish with their guts hanging out, manatees and dolphins turning belly up, red tide so bad you can barely breathe at the beach. The Northern Everglades is now the Everglades Agricultural Area, a federally subsidized sugar bowl for the nation. The Central 'glades is fragmented and managed as resevoirs and sumps. And the Southern 'glades, it's still protected as a national park, but it's been designated America's most endangered national park.]

Grunwald talked about the Army Corps of Engineers' restoration project, begun as a part of the Water Resources Development Act. Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 2000. [Grunwald... Now the Army Corps is going to spend $10 billion, probably much more than that, to try to fix man's mistakes in the Everglades. The largest restoration project in the history of the planet. Well there's another reason for you to care about the Everglades, you're paying for it. You know, the Everglades can never be restored to its original condition. Bob Graham once said that would be like restoring the omlette you ate for breakfast to its egg. But there are millions of people here, and millions more are coming. Because it's March and it's freaking beautiful outside. I mean it beats the hell out of Cleveland and Buffalo in the winter.]

Even though restoration measures are under way, Grunwald questions the actual benefits to the Everglades. In essence the Army Corps of Engineers' restoration plan is actually more focused on regulating the water supply than on repairing the environment. [Grunwald...The scientists at Everglades National Park have complained that it isn't restoration at all. They see swift and sure benefits for sugar farmers, water utilities, and rock miners, but the benefits for the Everglades are highly uncertain and delayed for decades. The current Corps plan makes little effort to get out of Mother Nature's way and let the Everglades flow. It's interesting, it's legally required to provide enough water for South Florida's population to double, but it's got no requirements for smart growth or water conservation.]

According to Grunwald, the Everglades is one of the most beloved symbols of nature in the United States and a success here could ignite restoration efforts elsewhere. [Grunwald... The Everglades is the ultimate test of sustainable development. South Florida is where we're going to figure out if man can live in harmony with nature. This Everglades restoration project is already a model for projects to revive the Chesopeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Louisiana's coastal wetlands, and projects around the world. I spoke to the guy who's in charge of restoring the Garden of Eden marshes in Southern Iraq, the ones that Saddam Hussein destroyed to try to root out the marsh Arabs. He says he's watching what happens in the Everglades very closely. A successful project here could usher in a new era of ecosystem restoration.]

An audience member asked whether there is any reason to believe that the Army Corps' work will show any real benefits to the Everglades. Grunwald responded. [Grunwald... This project has created such unbelievable expectations. And there's so much retoric. Most people probably think the Everglades is already restored. But certainly there's going to be incredible pressure to show results.]

Mike Grunwald's book, "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise," is widely available at bookstores and online.

With WMNF News, this is Emily Reddy.

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