What does it mean to restore the Florida Everglades?

It is complex question, which merits thoughtful engagement with south Florida’s history, familiarity with ecosystem restoration theory and a good dose of visionary thinking. As scholars have demonstrated, ecological restoration is not just a scientific endeavor. Ecological restoration is also a social and political process that poses tough philosophical questions about what people’s proper relationship to nature should be (1). Yet, this question becomes all the more important in the current era of unprecedented environmental change.

A historic postcard. Courtesy of Everglades Digital Library.
If we take the historical view, Everglades restoration is one of many improvement projects that have reshaped south Florida across history. Indeed, the history of south Florida (and the Everglades) is one of transformation. Since the late 1800s, South Florida’s lands and waters have been remade time and time again in the name of progress and improvement. Different actors, ranging from early land barons, state officials and reclamation engineers to contemporary environmentalists and government agencies, have put forward visions of progress and rallied behind improvement projects designed to render this landscape more productive, more profitable, more habitable, more attractive to tourists, and, with Everglades restoration, more ecologically resilient. These visions for improving south Florida have given rise to a succession of environmental conservation and development projects ranging from extensive wetland reclamation to national park creation to widespread suburban development to the inception of one of the world’s largest ecosystem restoration projects. Each of these projects has powerfully restructured the region’s lands and waters, human-environment interactions, and environmental politics.

This map depicts the historic water flow across the Greater Everglades Ecosystem before the Central and Southern Florida Project. Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers.
The push for Everglades restoration in the 1970s - or the repair of south Florida’s beleaguered mosaic of wetland habitats - came about in response to the adverse environmental consequences of a previous improvement project: the Central and Southern Florida (CS&F) flood control project. The CS&F project was launched in 1947. A vast armature of infrastructure including 1,000 miles of levees and canals, 15 square miles of interconnected water reservoirs, 150 water control structures and 16 major pumping stations, the CS&F project ushered in an era of unprecedented comprehensive water control in south Florida (2). Designed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in response to devastating floodwaters from a powerful 1947 hurricane, the CS&F project enabled widespread agricultural and residential development across the peninsula. While paving the way for South Florida’s rapid modernization, the CS&F project was propelled by the notion that wetlands were worthless and by a vision of progress premised on transforming wetlands into more productive uses through human ingenuity.

This map illustrates how the CS&F project disrupted historic Everglades water flows, and created the current water management system. 
Yet, the CS&F project had deleterious environmental effects. Through the CS&F project, the US Army Corps of Engineers completely re-engineered the Everglades from its historic form as a slow-moving, wide river of water into a fusion of nature, technology and intensive human management (3). In the process, the Corps effectively dismantled the elemental characteristics of the Everglades ecosystem: the seasonal pulse of water from Lake Okeechobee and the wetland’s uninterrupted sheetflow (4). Michael Grunwald has chronicled how the CS&F project did an excellent job draining south Florida and delivering water to agricultural and urban development, but drastically disrupted the quantity, quality and timing of historic water flows across the Greater Everglades ecosystem, especially those into Everglades National Park (5).

In the 1970s, the CS&F project’s adverse consequences became painfully apparent in Everglades National Park. The park landscape was starved of so much water that it almost completely dried out, and intense fires raged across its habitats (6). These events sparked public outcry, and a series of Congressionally mandated projects focused on restoring the hydrology of the Everglades watershed, which culminated with the Congressional authorization of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000 (7).

An Everglades vista. Courtesy of South Florida Water Management District.
The product of consensus between Florida’s many diverse and often divided water interests, CERP aimed to “get the water right” or restore the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of water flows across the Everglades so that they mimicked historical water conditions as closely as possible. CERP proposed to achieve its goals through a series of 68 projects, including some unproven technologies such as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells (8).

We are now in the twelfth year of CERP, which has undergone several waves of adaptive management, and in the midst of grand rethinking of what it means to steward nature in the 21st century. Traditionally, ecosystem restoration efforts have looked to the past, turning toward a historical baseline condition to which they could return a degraded ecosystem (9). However, in this “post-wild” world – a world where pure “pristine” nature no longer exists because of the far-reaching effects of human influence on Planet Earth – nature appears far more dynamic and anthropogenically produced than we once thought (10). There is greater recognition that humans have significantly shaped the world’s dynamic ecosystems (and not always in negative ways), and that nature’s future is more uncertain than ever with impending climate change. We are entering an era of no-analog or novel ecosystems around the world (11). In the face of such great change and uncertainty, a one size fits all ecosystem restoration approach won’t lead us into a sustainable future. Moreover, these insights prompt us to rethink the role people play in landscapes, including how human practices and knowledges can be used to help repair and strengthen ecological resiliency.

Remnants of a logging tram road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Courtesy of author. 
Everglades restoration began as a government-led improvement project, guided by science and engineering, and aimed at restoring the Everglades to a pre-drainage baseline. As all programs grow and evolve, so too is Everglades restoration. Everglades restoration is moving in important new directions that honor cultural heritage and the contributions local knowledge honed over generations can make to enhancing ecological resiliency. A new model for Everglades restoration is unfolding in the northern Everglades, or the headwaters of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem in the Kissimmee Basin, that relies on public-private partnerships. Spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Northern Everglades Alliance and other grassroots actors, these efforts work to build partnerships with local ranchers to simultaneously protect the region’s natural values and its rich ranching heritage, all the while ensuring that clean water continues to flow into the Greater Everglades (12). Such collaborative conservation models have proven to be effective and creative solutions for improving environmental health and ecological resiliency in the American West, while bridging polarizing politics and carving out a more empowering place for local land stewardship practices in ecosystem management (13).
Prairie/Pine Island Mosaic, Big Cypress National Preserve. Courtesy of author.
There is no doubt that the future of the stunning, otherworldly and one-of-kind wetland we call the Everglades – an irreplaceable natural and cultural treasure as well as the source of the majority of south Florida’s drinking water - depends on finding the common ground to build not one but many innovative and inclusive collaborations that constructively bring together multiple voices, knowledge systems and environmental stewardship practices to make the Everglades more resilient in the Anthropocene (14).

Backcountry Camp, Big Cypress National Preserve. Courtesy of author.
(1)   Helford, Reid. 2000. “Constructing Nature as Constructing Science: Expertise, Activist Science, and Public Conflict in the Chicago Wilderness.” In Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities, Paul Gobster and R. Bruce Hull eds., Pp. 119-142. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
        Higgs, Eric. 2003. Nature by Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
        Hull, R. Bruce and David Robertson. 2000. “Conclusion: Which Nature?” In Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities, Paul Gobster and R. Bruce Hull eds., Pp. 299-307. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
        Rikoon, J. Sanford. 2006. Wild Horses and the political ecology of nature restoration in the Missouri Ozarks. Geoforum 37: 200-211.
(2)   U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO). 2007. South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Is Moving Forward but Is Facing Significant Delays, Implementation Challenges, and Rising Costs. Report for House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Washington, DC: GPO. GAO-07-520
(3)   See Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. 1947. The Everglades: River of Grass. 60th Anniversary edition with update by Michael Grunwald. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2007.
        Hollander, Gail M. 2008. Raising Cane in the  ’Glades: The Global Sugar Trade and the Transformation of Florida. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
(4)   Blake, Nelson Manfred. 1980. Land into Water - Water into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida. Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida.
(5)   Grunwald, Michael. 2006. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise. New York: Simon and Schuster.
(6)   Davis, Jack E. 2011. An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
(7)   Doyle, Mary. 2008.  “The Everglades.” In Large-scale Ecosystem Restoration: Five case studies from the United States, eds. Mary Doyle and Cynthia Drew, 1-2. Washington, DC: Island Press.
        U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO). 2007. South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Is Moving Forward but Is Facing Significant Delays, Implementation Challenges, and Rising Costs. Report for House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Washington, DC: GPO. GAO-07-520
(8)   Salt, Terrence “Rock”, Stuart Langton and Mary Doyle. “The Challenges of Restoring the Everglades Ecosystem.” In Large-scale Ecosystem Restoration: Five case studies from the United States, eds. Mary Doyle and Cynthia Drew, 5-33. Washington, DC: Island Press.
(9)   Higgs, Eric. 2003. Nature by Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
(10) Marris, Emma. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury.
(11) Hobbs, Richard J., Eric Higgs and James A. Harris. Novel Ecosystems: Implications for Conservation and Restoration. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24(11): 599-605.
(12) Jenkins, Matt. 2011. The Headwaters: A New Deal Aims to Secure the Sources of the Everglades’ Waters. The Nature Conservancy Magazine 2(June): 44-50. http://magazine.nature.org/features/northern-everglades.xml
(13) Sayre, Nathan F. 2005. Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range. Tucson, AZ: Rio Nuevo Publishers.
(14) See Crutzen, P.J. and E.F. Stoermer. 2000. The Anthropocene. IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17- 18. Crutzen and Stoermer use the term the “Anthropocene” to demarcate a post-Holocene present and future in which human activity is understood to be the dominant agent of change in the global environment. However, there are alternative perspectives on this sweeping claim. Some scholars challenge it, arguing that it reaffirms the idea that humans are solely despoilers of nature and exert a mastery over the earth. Instead, critics argue there are many different kinds of human-nature interactions – some negative, some positive – and that humans are one of many agents of change. For alternative readings, see Nigel Clark. 2011. Inhuman nature: sociable life on a dynamic planet. Los Angeles: Sage; Bruno Latour. 2004. Politics of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; T. Morton. 2012. “On Entering the Anthropocene.” A lecture at the Environmental Humanities Symposium, University of New South Wales, August 23, 2012. Available at  http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/08/on-entering-anthropocene-mp3.html; and T. Morton. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


  1. Great Post! Your blog really benefits me a lot. I’ve been searching on this topic. The Everglades is home to a wide variety of local wildlife. To conserve the Florida ecology, it requires a specialized understanding of a fragile balance of ecological components. Thanks for sharing!


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