To save everglades, guardians small dry itchy patches on skin fight time — and climate search results the journal gazette

To a layman, this patch of brown-green saw grass and button mangrove deep inside Everglades National Park looks healthy enough, but Troxler knows trouble lurks just beneath the murky surface. She points to a clump of grass: Beneath the water line, the soil has retreated about a foot, leaving the root mass exposed. It is evidence that the thick mat of peat supporting this ecosystem is collapsing — and research suggests encroaching sea water is to blame.

"Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land," President Harry S. Truman said in a 1947 address dedicating Everglades National Park. "Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country."

Today, we understand that natural systems like the untouched Everglades provide enormous benefits — water filtration, nurseries for fish and other wildlife, protection from storm surges, even carbon sequestration. But to 19th-century Floridians, all that water — and the mosquitos and reptiles it harbored — represented an impediment to progress.

Beginning in earnest during the 1880s, a host of entities set about draining the swamp. They dug canals east and west from Lake Okeechobee, carrying nutrient-laden water that altered the salinity of coastal estuaries and caused toxic algae blooms. They seeded the wetlands from the air with a thirsty, paper-barked Australian tree called melaleuca. The vast custard apple forest that girded the lake’s southern shore was torched, burning so fiercely that it set the very earth on fire.

In the 1960s, the Corps began straightening the meandering, flood-prone Kissimmee River. Lined by wetlands so lush that they were known as "the Little Everglades," the shallow, 130-mile river was what one wildlife expert called a "nursery ground for sport fishes." By 1971, engineers had straightened the once free-flowing stream into a 56-mile, 30-foot-deep canal bureaucratically designated as the C-38.

But it was an event in 1928 that, as much as any, altered the Everglades’ course. That year, a hurricane overwhelmed the flimsy dike along Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore, causing a deluge that killed 3,000 people, most of them poor, black farmworkers. The resulting 143-mile, 30-foot-high Herbert Hoover Dike now nearly completely surrounds the lake, permanently severing its connection to the park.

Flash forward to the present day, when many of the same canals and levees and pumps that helped drain the Everglades are now being used to try to save them. Alongside the Everglades Agricultural Area, the 700,000-acre checkerboard of sugar cane and winter vegetable fields south of Lake Okeechobee, huge tracts are being converted to store and clean water for use when and where it is needed.

Perhaps the biggest step toward that end so far is the re-engineering of Tamiami Trail, the east-west highway that essentially has acted as a dike through the heart of the Everglades since the 1920s. Since 2013, workers have elevated 3.3 miles of the roadway, allowing water to flow freely into Shark River Slough, historically the deepest and wettest part of the Everglades.

Scientists are counting on mangroves and other more salt-tolerant plants to migrate inland into the saw grass plains, establishing a new, natural bulwark against climate change. But that change may already be outpacing nature’s — and man’s — ability to counter it: When the restoration plan was adopted in 2000, its authors were anticipating seas to rise only 6 inches by 2050. They’ve since already risen 5 inches.

Of all the invasive species plaguing the Everglades, the Burmese python is the most high-profile and, arguably, the most intractable. No one is quite sure how a giant snake native to Southeast Asia found its way into the wilds of South Florida in the late 1970s, although many believe the first were escaped — or released — pets. Estimates of their population run into the hundreds of thousands, and they are voracious.

Back in the lab, they weigh and measure their prize: nearly 14 feet long and just over 95 pounds. After putting her in a case and locking her in a storeroom, Bartoszek sifts through her droppings, finding bits of bone and what turn out to be the hooves of a white-tail deer — the primary prey of the Florida panther, an endangered native species.

"Overall, the Florida Everglades is struggling to survive in the face of sustained pressure from human activities and the increasing impacts of climate change," the group wrote. "The poor to fair scores reflected in the report card indicate that the region’s ecosystems are degraded and the anticipated ecological benefits of restoration are still to be realized."

Some adaptation is taking place. Scientists poking through the bellies of wood storks, an "indicator species" for Everglades restoration, have found evidence that they are feasting on the non-native African jewelfish. And the endangered Everglades snail kite is showing a fondness for an exotic species of the mollusk, another latecomer to the region.