The Everglades’ Wild Hope

Written by Monte Burke

A boater scans the mangrove flats of Florida Bay within Everglades National Park.
Photo by Mac Stone

Editor’s note: Garden&Gun magazine has posted a wonderful story by Monte Burke on the plight of the Everglades and the efforts to save the River of Grass from environmental collapse.

We leave Flamingo at sunrise. The fishing guide, Jason Sullivan, guns the throttle of his skiff, beelining us through Whitewater Bay.

We come to a stop in a river mouth—engine cut, wash shooshing against the stern—where the mud gives off the deep, musty smell of fecundity. The early morning air is still, but everything else is astir. Insects thrum in our ears. A phalanx of ibis, snowy egrets, and one Technicolor-pink roseate spoonbill cluck and honk on the shoreline. Big pelicans crash clumsily into the water, scooping up baitfish. On a flat near the riverbank, four dolphins are rounding up—and periodically massacring—a school of mullet. And around us, a few tarpon roll on the surface, their backs glinting silver and pink in the gathering sunlight.

A canal along the Tamiami Trail highway exemplifies the drastic stoppage of water that once flowed freely to Florida Bay.
Photo by Mac Stone

The Everglades—the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States—are where Melville’s “great floodgates of the wonder-world” swing wide open.

Dave Perkins, the executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company, steps up on the bow and begins throwing flawless casts at the tarpon. A little while later, I take my turn. We both come up empty—Sullivan thinks the rowdy dolphins put the tarpon on edge—so we move, making our way to a lake deep in the backcountry, squeezing through an opening in the mangroves just wider than the skiff. There we catch baby tarpon and snook, and spot redfish and largemouth bass.

Perkins tells us about his long history with the Everglades. For him, as for many of us, fishing was his way in. One spring during his teenage years, his father, Leigh, who purchased Orvis in 1965, rented a houseboat and took the family into the backcountry. “That’s when I first fell in love with the Everglades,” Perkins says. Later in life, when he realized what was at stake, that love would begin to manifest itself beyond fishing, in ways that have pushed his company far out of its comfort zone.

Toxic, alga-laden water reaches the town of Stuart in 2018. Health advisories warned people to avoid the water.
Photo by Mac Stone

The Everglades are dying. On this matter, there is no debate. A century’s worth of dewatering, as well as pollution, dam and canal building, corporate welfare, and indifferent (at best) or bought-and-paid-for (at worst) politicians, has led to one of the greatest ecological tragedies in the country’s history, a fall from Eden that has serious ramifications for human and economic health. The question now for the Everglades—the matter still up for debate—is whether redemption remains possible.

For the first time in two decades, there is, perhaps, reason for guarded optimism, thanks to a rare alignment of interests and events: the unified effort of moderate and radical advocacy groups, some fed-up fishermen, attention-grabbing (and interrelated) environmental devastation on both coasts of Florida, bold corporate activism, and (surprise!) even a few enlightened politicians.

That hope is the good news.

The bad news: We’ve been here before, only to see hope dashed.

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