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'The Everglades: River of Grass' takes a look back on the way forward to restoration

Miami Herald Archive

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist before she became one of the greatest champions for protecting the Everglades.

She supported the efforts to turn it into a National Park and served on the park’s founding committee.

Her book, “The Everglades: River of Grass,” came out in 1947, the year Everglades National Park was finally dedicated. Two decades later, she convinced President Richard Nixon to nix a project for a major airport in what is now the Big Cypress National Preserve.

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We’re reading her book for this month’s Sundial Book Club.

Eve Samples, Executive Director of Friends of the Everglades, joined Sundial to discuss the book and Marjory's role in this region.

You can join the book club here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: What's your first memory of the Everglades?

SAMPLES: I grew up in North Miami, it felt like a world apart from the Everglades. But I was one of those lucky kids that got to go on field trips to the Everglades on occasion. And I recall taking that un-air-conditioned bus ride down to the Everglades and witnessing an expanse of sawgrass and big sky and kind of insufferable heat that felt like another planet from North Miami, where I grew up on a postage stamp-sized lot. And it just made me realize that even though my neighborhood and the Everglades looked vastly different, we were not so far apart in terms of geographic proximity. And in fact, we were really connected as well. You know, Miami is built on the Everglades, essentially, and once you get out there in the expanse of wilderness, whether you're a kid or you're older, you start to see signs of the Everglades even in the urbanized area. In fact, I was driving recently and I saw two roseate spoonbills fly over my head on I-95. So, we are living together, the Everglades and the urbanized areas.

The Everglades, River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
The Everglades, River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

WLRN: Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist before she devoted her life to the Everglades. What do you think is one of her greatest strengths that you admire?  

SAMPLES: Marjory was very intellectually honest. She stayed open to the facts. And when the facts guided her in a different direction than what she was previously thinking, she adjusted [her] course. She was a champion early on of some things that ended up being bad for the Everglades — one of those things is the construction of Tamiami Trail, which we actually have had to elevate in recent years to allow water to flow underneath it. I really admire that flexible thinking, and I think it's what made her such a wonderful advocate because when you're in the realm of environmental advocacy, as we are at Friends of the Everglades, you really have to stay open to the facts as they come and not get entrenched in celebrating half measures or false victories.

WLRN: How would you rate the work and efforts federal and state lawmakers have made toward restoring the Everglades?

SAMPLES: I would give the state and federal leaders a pretty mediocre grade at this point, maybe a C-minus. The Comprehensive Everglades restoration plan was signed off on in 2000, we're 22 years out from that and while we are seeing significant funding come in for the construction of those 68 projects — the biggest environmental restoration project in the world. The problem is that those earthmoving projects alone won't be enough if we're not also reining in water pollution at its source in Florida. Those two things have to work in tandem.

Friends of the Everglades, we’re strong advocates of solutions that mimic Mother Nature and nature-based solutions, not over-engineered systems that can create more problems down the road. That's what got Florida into trouble to begin with when we drained the historic Everglades and tried to manipulate them into something that looks nothing like nature. The more we can restore land and have significant land to build nature-based solutions on, the better off we'll be in Florida.

WLRN: Florida is growing really fast. Population-wise, people just want to come here and live here. That's putting a lot of pressure on those natural systems. We've got rising temperatures and rising seas. How do you tackle all of these changes?

SAMPLES: So Everglades protection and restoration is a tool in the battle against climate change and sea level rise. Restoring the flow of clean water south to the Everglades helps hold back saltwater intrusion, the harmful algal blooms that you mentioned [and] toxic algae — they are more frequent when we have higher, hotter temperatures for more parts of the year. So that's evidence that we need to rein in these sources of carbon into the atmosphere. These things are not separate.

One of my favorite quotes that’s often misattributed to Marjory but was actually said by one of her confidants is that ‘saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.’ And that certainly feels relevant in this era of accelerating climate change.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
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