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Bright Lit Place: The people who fight for — and depend on — Everglades restoration

Deep in the Everglades, in remote sawgrass marshes few people ever see, Michael Frank points to a faded white, red, black and gold Miccosukee flag that flies above the dock at his family's tree island.

“We were told to never, ever leave the Everglades. You leave the Everglades, you lose your culture, you lose your language, you lose your identity,” Frank said. “You become just like the outside people.”

Today, unnaturally high water flows under the boardwalks that connect the island’s thatch-roofed chickees. Native plants fight for space with weedy elephant grass, Brazilian pepper and other invasive species.

The flag stays up, Frank said, because it represents the Miccosukee Tribe’s willingness to talk with those outside people to help save the marshes that hold his ancestral tree islands.

The new WLRN podcast Bright Lit Place, part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative, examines what happened to Florida’s promise to undo the damage killing the islands and restore the Everglades with a massive plan approved in 2000. Work was originally expected to cost just under $8 billion and take about 20 years. The price has now soared to $23 billion and fallen decades behind schedule. Meanwhile, the swamp keeps dying.

Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank visits his family’s Tree Island where he spent part of his youth. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.
Patrick Farrell
/
For WLRN
Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank visits his family’s tree island where he spent part of his youth.
Dawn at Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of Florida's Everglades.
Patrick Farrell
Dawn at Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of Florida's Everglades.
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys Fishing Captain Tim Klein directs a fly fishing client to find fish off of Islamorada in Florida Bay.
Patrick Farrell
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys fishing captain Tim Klein takes a fly fishing client off Islamorada in Florida Bay.

Half of the Everglades tree islands in Frank’s homeland are now gone, washed away by high water stored in the marshes after the Everglades was dredged and drained to make way for development. Pig Jaw, Smallpox Tommy, Stinking Hammock and other islands where Frank lived and played as a child remain, but they’re chronically threatened by water.

Without freshwater from the Everglades, mangrove forests that protect the shoreline struggle to keep up with sea rise. Spongy peat soils and sawgrass marshes that help clean and recharge South Florida’s drinking water continue to collapse. And a menagerie of wildlife, from scarlet-colored roseate spoonbills to marsh rabbits, disappear.

These are some of the people appearing in Bright Lit Place who’ve spent decades waiting for progress. Those hit hardest measure losses in their checkbooks and family businesses, or even their homelands. Others have devoted their careers to the science needed to get restoration done right, working long hours, often in inhospitable conditions, and sometimes, facing fierce opposition.

Fishing Guide Tim Klein

On a postcard perfect day in Florida Bay, fishing guide Tim Klein and his son, James, steer their boats around a small, horseshoe-shaped key crowded with squawking sea birds.

The water ripples with nervous mullet as a small pod of bottlenose dolphins swim nearby. Suddenly, a dolphin breaks the surface, belly up, with a mullet in its mouth.

Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys Fishing Captain Tim Klein directs a fly fishing client to fish off of Islamorada as the sun rises over Florida Bay. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys fishing captain Tim Klein directs a fly fishing client to fish off Islamorada as the sun rises over Florida Bay.

“That was epic! Did you see that?” an astonished Klein shouted. “See, I give good eco tour.”

Klein, 62, is a champion flats guide with a long list of tournament victories. Years of poling clients to victory in his skiff kept his schedule booked nearly every day with anglers wanting to catch one of the Keys’ cherished sportfish — bonefish, permit or tarpon.

Patrick Farrell
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys fishing captain Tim Klein.

Fewer days get booked now. When they are, Klein usually suggests a day looking for sawfish or sightseeing around the emerald mangrove islands.

“I got all new clientele,” he said. “I've been doing this for 38 years now, and the people I've fished in the past are just not here anymore.”

That’s because it’s getting harder to find those champion sportfish in Florida Bay, where flood control has cut off freshwater and left water chronically salty. High salinity can damage seagrass meadows that harbor shrimp, crab and other prey for the fish.

Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys Fishing Captain Tim Klein uses a small device to check water salinity while looking for fish with a fly fishing client off of Islamorada in Florida Bay. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys fishing captain Tim Klein looks for fish with a fly fishing client off Islamorada in Florida Bay.

The bay now gets about half of the freshwater it received a century ago.

“It's never going to be like it used to be back in the days when my dad was guiding, especially with all the big bonefish and scores of red fish,” said James Klein, 23, the third generation of Kleins to captain a boat.

He does most of his guiding offshore, not the flats that brought his dad so much success. “We used to drive around on my little Hell’s Bay (skiff) and just find schools of hundreds of them.”

Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys Fishing Captain Tim Klein directs a fly fishing client to fish off of Islamorada as the sun rises over Florida Bay.
Patrick Farrell
Islamorada, Florida: Florida Keys fishing captain Tim Klein takes a fly fishing client off Islamorada as the sun rises over Florida Bay.

That rarely happens now, he said. And Tim Klein is getting tired of waiting.

“We need to change,” he said. “We keep doing the same thing, year after year after year. It's always waiting for this project and that project — and nothing happens. We just need water some way or another. We need water in our bay before it dies again.”

To hear more from Klein, listen to episode 1 of Bright Lit Place.

The Gardeners: Eric Crawford and Tadese Adeagbo

Eric Crawford and Tadese Adeagbo work for the South Florida Water Management District tending to bulrush, lacy hydrilla and other plants that fill 57,000 acres of man-made wetlands where polluted water is cleaned before it flows into the Everglades.

“You didn't think you'd enjoy sitting in the middle of an industrial wastewater treatment facility. But that's where we are,” Crawford said as he throttled down on his airboat.

South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientists Tadese Adeagbo and Eric Crawford head out in their airboat into the Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West to check out their work in vegetation management.
South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientists Tadese Adeagbo and Eric Crawford head out in their airboat into the Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West to check out their work in vegetation management.

Under an early morning sun, the treatment marshes fill with birds as the brightening air wakes up bugs and ripples with a soft breeze. Alligators slink through the coffee-colored water.

“We are a farm, but we don't have a crop. We're the reverse of normal farming,” he said.

South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientist Tadese Adeagbo leans down out of the airboat to illustrate some of the water resistant vegetation characteristics in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientist Tadese Adeagbo leans down out of the airboat to illustrate some of the water resistant vegetation characteristics in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.

Instead of adding nutrients to help grow plants, they use plants to suck up and trap nutrient pollution in the water.

Crawford, 66, and Adeagbo, 34, spend their days on airboats skirting around the marshes. That often means wading into the water where crews hand plant the bulrush to inspect the work.

South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientist Eric Crawford does some soil sampling as workers wade in the water planting Bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program.
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Senior Scientist Eric Crawford does some soil sampling as workers wade in the water planting bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program.

While the workers toil in water that can be waist-deep, crew chief Ismael Gerena keeps watch for gators from the controls of his airboat.

“You don't know where they're at because they stay underwater. So you got to constantly watch out for them,” he said.

South Bay, Florida: An alligator swims in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West. Scientists from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) were checking out their work on vegetation management in the area.
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: An alligator swims in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West. Scientists from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) were checking out their work on vegetation management in the area.

There are also snakes, said Juan Hernandez, 60, who started working in the treatment marshes more than a decade ago.

“Some people quit,” he said. “They try it and [don’t] like it because [there are] snakes, alligators. And it’s hard to walk in here.”

South Bay, Florida: Worker Ingrio Lopez (foreground) wades in the water while planting Bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: Worker Ingrio Lopez (foreground) wades in the water while planting bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program.

Over the years, the hardworking stormwater treatment marshes have removed millions of tons of phosphorus, dramatically reducing what flows south. But they still consistently fail to reach the limit required under a court-ordered clean-up plan.

And managing them has been no easy task. During storms, they switch to flood control to store high water. That means the careful work Crawford and Adeagbo do on clean-up can get wiped out by a tropical storm.

South Bay, Florida: Workers wade in the water as they plant Bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. \
Patrick Farrell
/
For WLRN
South Bay, Florida: Workers wade in the water as they plant bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program.

“You don’t get two different teams,” Crawford said. “You get one piece of land to do both.”

To hear more from Crawford and Adeagbo, listen to episode 3 of Bright Lit Place.

Hydrologist Tom Van Lent

After more than four decades working on Everglades restoration, hydrologist Tom Van Lent is considered among the leading experts on how the swamp works.

“He's absolutely one of the top hydrologists that's ever studied the Everglades from a technical perspective,” said Robert Johnson, who retired as the director of the National Park Services’ science center where he helped steer restoration for 40 years. “People go to Tom to learn about the Everglades.”

South Bay, Florida: A dragonfly lands on vegetation in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West. Scientists from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) were checking out their work on vegetation management in the area. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: A dragonfly lands on vegetation in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.

A lawsuit filed by Van Lent’s former bosses at the Everglades Foundation in 2022 now threatens to undo that legacy and send him to jail.

Van Lent began his Everglades career out of graduate school at the South Florida Water Management District, the state partner in restoration, then moved to the National Park Service’s science center, where he helped create the models that set the course for restoration work.

Tallahassee, Fla.: Dr. Thomas Van Lent is a senior science adviser to the Friends of the Everglades.
Colin Hackley
/
COLIN HACKLEY
Tallahassee, Florida: Dr. Thomas Van Lent is a senior science adviser to the Friends of the Everglades.

“My father and grandfather were very good carpenters and they said it's not the tools that make a good carpenter. And it's the same with models,” said Van Lent. “You have to kind of know how to use them.”

Van Lent’s models helped redefine restoration before the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration plan passed in 2000, when he argued that benefits to the park would not arrive for three decades. In 2005, the Everglades Foundation convinced him to join the nonprofit to build its science team.

Clewiston, Florida: Birder Steve Buczynski heads out on his paddleboard from the Public Access Boat Ramp in Clewiston toward Lake Okeechobee to get a look at some of the early morning bird activity. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.
Patrick Farrell
/
For WLRN
Clewiston, Florida: Birder Steve Buczynski heads out on his paddleboard from the Public Access Boat Ramp in Clewiston toward Lake Okeechobee to get a look at some of the early morning bird activity.

“I was just known for just speaking what I thought and would speak truth to power. And they, at the time, admired that,” he said.

But in 2016, that doggedness got him into trouble when he objected to a controversial Everglades reservoir. After lawmakers dramatically scaled back the original plan from 60,000 acres to 17,000 acres, Van Lent worried treatment marshes were too small to clean water from the much deeper reservoir. The Army Corps and U.S. Department of Interior also raised objections. The Everglades Coalition, an umbrella group for more than six dozen environmental groups across the state, also objected.

South Bay, Florida: A Great White Heron wades in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West with a sugar mill off in the distance. Scientists from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) were checking out their work on vegetation management in the area. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: A Great White Heron wades in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West with a sugar mill off in the distance.

Van Lent stepped aside as chief scientist, he said, as tension worsened.

He finally quit in 2022 and on his last day tweeted that he was going to work for another conservation group, Friends of the Everglades, that put “science over politics.” Two weeks later the Foundation sued, filing a sealed complaint that accused him of stealing trade secrets. A judge ordered him to stop downloading information from any computer and in May found Van Lent violated the injunction. The judge also ordered Van Lent to pay the Foundation’s legal bills, totaling $178,000.

In December, Van Lent filed for bankruptcy. At his December sentencing hearing, his wife Lois, 66, said she’s going back to work.

South Bay, Florida: Water lotus in a manmade stormwater treatment marsh at Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.
Patrick Farrell
South Bay, Florida: Water lotus on a manmade stormwater treatment marsh at Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.

More than two decades ago when he pointed out that flaw in the original restoration plan, Van Lent took a huge risk to ensure restoration was done right, Stuart Pimm, a leading expert in extinction biology, said at the hearing.

“That was a very courageous thing to do academically,” Pimm testified. “It was … even a more courageous thing to do politically and it represented to me the extraordinary commitment to getting the story right and doing the science properly that has characterized everything I've seen Tom do.”

To hear more from Van Lent, listen to episode 4 of Bright Lit Place.

Beekeeper Rene Curtis Pratt

Keg-sized bees hover over windows and honey oozes from a comb on a two-story mural outside the Harold P. Curtis Honey Co., a block from the Caloosahatchee River in tiny LaBelle.

LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt runs her family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in LaBelle, Florida near the Caloosahatchee Canal as it flows southwest from Lake Okeechobee. Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. was established in 1954. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
LaBelle, Florida: Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. was established in 1954.

Inside, honey is everywhere: in plastic bears and jars, in soaps and candles that line shelves against golden yellow walls.

Rene Curtis Pratt, 65, runs the store her grandfather started nearly 70 years ago. She added the mural a few years ago to highlight the plight of honeybees and the fading honey industry that once flourished around LaBelle.

LaBelle, Florida: A honey bee works a Brazilian Pepper tree near Rene Pratt’s family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co.
Patrick Farrell
LaBelle, Florida: A honey bee works a Brazilian Pepper tree near Rene Pratt’s family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co.

Before sugarcane dominated the landscape, cattle and citrus groves filled its saw palmetto prairies. This was the land of juice and honey. Now, it’s a landscape increasingly crowded with planned communities like Timber Creek, Savanna Lakes and Liberty Shores.

Since Hurricane Irma came through in 2017, “This place has exploded,” Pratt said. And that’s bad news for beekeepers.

LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt inspects a bee covered frame from a beehive.
Patrick Farrell
LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt inspects a bee covered frame from a beehive.

“People want bees on their property, but yet they don't want them to sting them or their kids or their horses or their cows,” she said.

It’s another trend getting in the way of restoration. As Florida’s population swelled, housing spread further inland, backing up to the Everglades’ borders. Where farm fields once replaced prairies and wetlands, gated communities now fill fallow fields.

LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt fills bottles with Orange Blossom Honey at her family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in LaBelle, Florida near the Caloosahatchee Canal as it flows southwest from Lake Okeechobee.
Patrick Farrell
LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt fills bottles with orange blossom honey at her family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co.

All that growth has helped worsen the state’s water problems, with more stormwater and leaking septic tanks fouling Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries connected to it.

Pratt grew up running between her house next to the store and her grandfather’s riverfront house a short walk away.

“We would jump down there and we'd swim in there and there's gators everywhere. They wouldn’t bother us,” she said. “Now, I wouldn’t get in that river to save my life.”

LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt leans on shelves with honey bottles at her family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. in LaBelle, Florida near the Caloosahatchee Canal as it flows southwest from Lake Okeechobee. Harold P. Curtis Honey Co. was established in 1954.
Patrick Farrell
LaBelle, Florida: Rene Pratt leans on shelves with honey bottles at her family’s store, Harold P. Curtis Honey Co.

Last year, Pratt stopped selling her own hive-raised honey in the store and instead buys it from beekeepers located farther away. She also sold the last of her hives.

“I didn't tell my husband. I didn't tell my children. Nobody for about six months,” she said, breaking into tears. “And it hurt my heart and my soul.”

To hear more from Pratt, listen to episode 6 of Bright Lit Place.

Wetlands Ecologist Evelyn Gaiser

Evelyn Gaiser grew up exploring frigid wetlands in Ohio, camping along the shores of Lake Huron. South Florida lured her to its buggy marshes in the late 1990s with a chance to work in one of the world’s largest wetlands. At the time, some of the most exciting new science was unfolding in the Everglades.

“I came in at the time when we were writing the Yellow Book, the plan for fixing everything,” she said. “All these different contingencies were planned, all these complicated trade-offs were understood. People were really careful in trying to get that plan right.”

Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser the George M. Barley, Jr. Endowed Scholars Chair at Florida International University talks about her research as she heads out to a research area in a mangrove forest off of Shark River in Everglades National Park with Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso.
Patrick Farrell
Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser, the George M. Barley, Jr. Endowed Scholars Chair at Florida International University, talks about her research as she heads out to a research area in a mangrove forest off of Shark River in Everglades National Park with Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso.

Gaiser, 56, was part of the team working with biologist Ron Jones to establish limits for phosphorus, the nutrient from fertilizer choking the marshes by fueling thick stands of cattails and killing the floating mats of periphyton that feed wildlife.

“You could fly into Miami on a plane and notice from the air these expansive areas of cattail,” Gaiser said. “Just as far as you can look, you see cattails.”

Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser the George M. Barley, Jr. Endowed Scholars Chair at Florida International University heads back to the dock from a research area in a mangrove forest off of Shark River in Everglades National Park with Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser heads back to the dock from a research area in a mangrove forest off Shark River.

But Jones had a plan: build vast treatment marshes south of sprawling sugarcane fields where plants could soak up the nutrient pollution.

Gaiser spent the next five years studying the effects of phosphorus in a remote part of the park untouched by pollution in experimental plots as long as a football field.

Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser the George M. Barley, Jr. Endowed Scholars Chair at Florida International University (at left) and Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso Head out to visit a research area in a mangrove forest off of Shark River in Everglades National Park. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.
Patrick Farrell
Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser (at left) and Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso head out to visit a research area in a mangrove forest off Shark River.

“What we discovered was that that very, very low, barely measurable level of enrichment above that extremely low background level was enough to catalyze a full cascade of changes resulting ultimately in a cattail invasion into this very pristine part of the Everglades,” she said.

Evidence that even small increases in phosphorus triggered catastrophic changes confirmed the need for Jones’ costly clean-up plan. That drew fire from both the state and sugar growers.

“It was very controversial because we were going up against the interests of the agricultural industry that drives a lot of the economy in Florida,” she said.

Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser the George M. Barley, Jr. Endowed Scholars Chair at Florida International University is prepared for the summer bugs as she visits a research area in a mangrove forest off of Shark River in Everglades National Park with Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by: Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
Everglades National Park: Dr. Evelyn Gaiser is prepared for the summer bugs as she visits a research area in a mangrove forest off Shark River with Lab Manager Rafael Traveiso.

The scientists prevailed and the limit remains in place. A court-ordered deadline for the state to begin showing it will meet the limit for phosphorus pollution is set for 2025. All these years later, Gaiser is dismayed that work to reconnect the river of grass and repair the Everglades has gone so slowly.

“It's happening in small areas, but it needs to be that on a massive scale, on the scale that created the problem in the first place,” she said.

You can hear more from Gaiser in episode 5 of Bright Lit Place.

Tribal Elder Michael Frank

Growing up, Frank lived on tree islands, moving within the swampy patches of high ground shared by the tribe.

Even before he was born, the islands were starting to disappear, as the Central and South Florida flood system took shape in the 1940s. The tribe often gathered for celebrations and meetings on a large island called New Town. When the Army Corps dredged a canal to drain farm fields to the north, it split the island in in two.

Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank visits his family’s Tree Island where he spent part of his youth. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project. Photos by Patrick Farrell
Patrick Farrell
Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank visits his family’s tree island where he spent part of his youth.

As flood control pushed more water into the vast conservation area west of Miami, Frank was forced to move more frequently. His family finally fled the islands, he said, when the Army Corps dredged a levee near the Tamiami Trail.

“Back in 1949 or '48, when my grandpa and grandma moved in, that's when they started working on the levees,” he said.

“And when they were working on that, they told my grandfather and grandmother, 'If that day ever comes when your island goes underwater, we'll come and build up your camp,' which they never did. It went three, four feet under water, but they never came and built the camps up.”

Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank visits his family’s Tree Island where he spent part of his youth. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.
Patrick Farrell
/
For WLRN
A close-up of Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank's walking stick.

Today, Frank and his uncle still camp on Rice Island, about seven miles north of the Tamiami Trail. He gets around the boardwalks with a walking stick now. Age has left his hands crimped and knotted. He’s had to rebuild his dock as water rises. But he keeps his flags flying.

To hear more from Frank, listen to episode 1 of Bright Lit Place.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Patrick Farrell has been a professional photojournalist for more than 30 years. A Miami Herald staff photographer from 1987 to 2019, Farrell is currently a freelance photographer and lecturer for the School of Communication at the University of Miami, his alma mater.
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