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Originally appeared in Issue No. 3.



A Recipe for Success in the River of Grass:  Restoring the South Florida Ecosystem by Leslie Peterson and Simmons B. Buntin

All of the Ingredients, Right or Wrong

The list of threatened and endangered plant and animal species, now nearly up to 70, reads like the ancient ingredients of a necromancer's elixir: Euphorbia garberi, Mycteria americana, Alligator mississippiensis, Papilio aristodemus ponceanus, with a touch of Drymarchon corias couperi and Ammodramus maritime mirabilis sprinkled in, of course, for flavor.  Their common names provide a little more aroma of just how diverse this stew actually is: Garber's spurge, wood stork, American alligator, Schaus swallowtail butterfly, Eastern indigo snake, and Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

The microcosms these plants and animals inhabit are just as varied.  From Kissimmee south to the Florida Keys, Biscayne Bay west to Caxambas Pass, the South Florida ecosystem truly is a soupy mix of plant, animal, and mineral.  Here tangled mangrove swamps surround small enclaves of human settlement: Flamingo, Florida City, Chokoloskee.  And there large urban areas encroach steadily on subtropical wilderness: Loxahatchee, Okeechobee, Fakahatchee Strand.  In between are the wetlands of sawgrass prairies and cypress strands and limestone sinkholes in places with names like Big Lostmans Bay, Ten Thousand Islands, Corkscrew Swamp, and Everglades.

South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Project Boundaries
The South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Project´s boundaries, from the Chain of Lakes south of Orlando to the Florida Keys. 
Graphic courtesy of National Park Service.

One of the largest tracts of this South Florida "river of grass," as the recently departed Marjory Stoneman Douglas so eloquently wrote of the Everglades, is Big Cypress National Preserve.  Set aside in 1974 to "ensure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the natural scenic, floral and faunal, and recreational values of the Big Cypress Watershed" according to the National Park Service, the 728,000-acre preserve is both a natural water recharge basin for the Everglades and a conservation area that prevents saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico.  Though most of the old growth cypresses were logged by the end of the 1950s, there remain a few stands tucked deep within the swamp where bald-cypresses up to 700 years old and 130 feet tall still tower.  Big Cypress, however, is not named for mighty trees, but rather its sheer size, and the number of distinct habitats: vast cypress strands, mixed hardwood hammocks, sandy pinelands, estuarine mangrove runs, wetgrass prairies, and the occasional freeway.

The names of the freeways at first seem fitting: Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley.  Yet, these multilane roadways are neither earthen trail nor thin alley.  They provide the main thoroughfares from the east to west coasts, from Miami to Naples.  They are as straight and unforgiving as the Kissimmee-River-come-Army-Corps-of-Engineers, as impervious as any slab of concrete over twelve inches thick and 80 miles long.  Indeed, they represent the convenient mode of urban sprawl that has largely placed the South Florida ecosystem in danger in the first place.

A Plan for Restoring the South Florida Ecosystem

Given the many perils faced by the natural environments of South Florida, and taking into consideration the challenges facing the built environments from Key West to North Fort Myers, from East Lake Tohopekaliga to South Miami, many have thrown their hands up and turned their backs.  But it is these exact perils and challenges that have brought many more together—twelve federal agencies, seven Florida agencies and commissions, two American Indian tribes, sixteen counties, scores of municipal governments, hundreds of private businesses and nonprofit organizations, and thousands of concerned citizens—to form the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Project.

The project consists of nearly 200 environmental restoration, growth management, agricultural, and urban revitalization projects, programs, and initiatives that are designed to make all of South Florida a more sustainable ecosystem.  With three clear goals—restore the natural hydrology of South Florida; enhance and recover native habitats and species; and revitalize urban core areas to reduce the outward migration of suburbs and improve the quality of life in core areas—the project is based on the premises that the built and natural environments are not sustainable given their current courses.  Indeed, the environment, society, and economics of South Florida are not discrete systems but are interlinking subsystems that together make up the South Florida ecosystem.

While the bureaucracy of the project is undeniable (restoration activities are coordinated by the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, its Florida-based Working Group, various advisory boards such as the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, and other technical working groups like the Science Coordination Team and the Public Outreach Steering and Support Team), to date the entities have effectively worked together through a series of federal and state mandates, formal agreements, treaty and trust responsibilities, and partnerships to put together a coherent and ever-evolving plan of action based on three strategies: adaptive management, innovative management, and action.

The South Florida ecosystem ranges from shallow saltwater
bays to relatively deep freshwater lakes like this one. 

Photo courtesy of South Florida Water Management District.

A Hole in the Plan?

If there's a hole in this plan, it is that the parts of the whole are so intricate and so complex that their interrelationships and outcomes cannot wholly be known.  The "Hole-in-the-Donut" in Everglades National Park provides a notable example.

The Hole-in-the-Donut is a 9,900-acre area in the eastern half of the park that was intensively farmed from the late 1920s through 1975.  Even though the establishment of the national park was authorized in 1934, this area remained privately held.  In the 1950s, as agriculture became more and more mechanized, a new process called rock-plowing was introduced that allowed farmers to crush the area's natural limestone rock rather than fold whole rock back into the soil.  Rock-plowing enabled crops to be planted on a large scale, and until 1975—when the U.S. Government finally purchased the land—was the farming practice of choice on nearly 5,000 acres within the Hole.

While rock-plowing proved beneficial for planted crops, it also proved exceedingly beneficial for non-native plant species.  From the 1930s through 1989, over 220 species of non-indigenous plants migrated into the South Florida "river of grass."  In the area of the Hole in which the soil was mechanically worked, one exotic species in particular has gained a stranglehold over the natural wetlands vegetation: Schinus terebinthifolius, the Brazilian pepper.  The Brazilian pepper is so common in parts of the Everglades, and especially in "disturbed" areas, that it is also known as Florida holly.  Where once there were acres upon acres of wetland prairies, sawgrass glade, ponds, pinelands, and hardwood hammocks, now this portion of the Hole is covered in forests of Brazilian pepper, a thick-berried tree indigenous to the coasts of tropical Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.  According to the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic Plants, Brazilian pepper was introduced to Florida in the mid-1800s as an ornamental landscaping plant.  While it is sparse in its native lands, it has crowded vast expanses of land in South Florida, creating a canopy so thick that native vegetation cannot grow in its understory. 

Attempts to control Brazilian pepper have included intensive cutting, fire, and herbicide.  While short-term successes have been made, in the long run the aggressive tree continues to expand its range, moving now from disturbed soils to the more stable soils of the sandy pinelands.  Eradicating the Brazilian pepper is just one of the many crucial challenges seemingly poised to shoot holes through the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration project plan.

West Indian manatee
The threatened West Indian manatee.
Photo courtesy of South Florida Water
Management District.

Florida panther
The endangered Florida panther. 
Photo courtesy of South Florida Water Management District.

Mizner Park
Boca Raton's Mizner Park. 
Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Internet Services, Inc.

It's a Long, Long List

There's a long, long list of problems facing the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.  The vast majority relate to actions taken by humans to add to, take from, or otherwise manipulate the Everglades and the surrounding natural environments.  The natural system extends from the Chain of Lakes south of Orlando to the reefs surrounding historic Fort Jefferson southwest of the Florida Keys.  Originally, water in this system flowed freely over low-lying lands and into coastal estuaries.  This expansive "river" covered almost 11,000 square miles, creating a mosaic of ponds, sloughs, sawgrass, marshes, hardwood hammocks, and forested uplands.  In and around the estuaries, freshwater mingled with salt to create habitats supporting mangroves and nurseries for wading birds and fish.  Beyond, near-shore islands and coral reefs provided shelter for an array of terrestrial and marine life.  For thousands of years these intricate relationships evolved into a finely balanced system that formed the biological infrastructure for the southern half of Florida.

Today, five million people reside on the east coast of South Florida alone, and by 2050 the number is expected to rise to 12 million.  The dramatic increase in population, and its associated agricultural and urban development, have greatly strained the natural system.  Half of the original wetlands are gone due to drainage, and many of the remaining natural habitats are significantly altered and disconnected from each other by nearly 2,000 miles of canals, over 200 control and diversion structures, 25 navigational locks, 56 railroad bridges, and hundreds of miles of roads.  Each year, two million acre-feet of water are lost from the natural system through direct discharge of agricultural and urban stormwater into estuaries and from unnatural seepage.

A Common Vision Leads to Multiple Responses

It takes a common vision from a plurality of concerned voices to tackle a list of problems this long.  The vision of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration project is "a landscape whose health, integrity, and beauty is restored and is nourished by its interrelationship with South Florida's human communities."  Three restoration goals have been set to meet this vision:

Goal 1: Get the Water Right

According to the Task Force, "Getting the water right means restoring more natural hydrologic functions while also providing adequate water supplies and flood control."  By focusing on quantity, quality, timing, and distribution, the aim is to "deliver the right amount of water, of the right quality, to the right places, at the right times."  Within this goal, tasks include capturing and storing excess water leaving the system or lost to tide, replacing the system's lost water storage capacity, finding effective methods to ensure that water supplies are clean enough for their intended use, restoring natural variations in water flows and levels, and reestablishing the normal, integrated sheetflow of water throughout the entire South Florida system.

Goal 2: Restore and Enhance the Natural System

Efforts within this goal are based on restoring habitats, recovering threatened and endangered species, and halting the spread of invasive, exotic species.  Specific actions proposed by the Task Force "involve maximizing the spatial extent of wetlands and other habitats through land acquisition and changes in current land use...;  removal or modification of canals, roads, and other structures; [and] maintenance or restoration of natural landscape features."  Additionally, "reducing the pulses of agricultural and urban stormwater runoff also will be important to restoring the natural balance and productivity of coast habitats and fisheries, as well as the health of coral reefs and nearshore seagrass communities."

Goal 3: Transform the Built Environment

The Task Force contends that "transforming the built environment means developing sustainable lifestyles and economies that do not negatively impact the natural environment, nor degrade the quality of life in built areas."  Ensuring that the region's traditional industries of agriculture, tourism, development, fishing, and manufacturing are compatible with restoration goals will be this goal's considerable challenge, yet is key if ecosystem restoration is to succeed.  Tasks initially proposed include development of efficient, sustainable agricultural practices; shifting the focus of tourism by promoting lower impact yet profitable activities such as ecotourism; more responsible greenfield development coupled with infilling and redevelopment of existing urban areas; reengineering of government programs and tax structures to encourage "smart" development, agriculture, and resource management; and integration of financial, utility, transportation, and other decision making to facilitate collaboration with planned restoration projects.

Kissimmee River
The Kissimmee River was straightened by the
Army Corps of Engineers beginning in 1950.
Now there's a plan to let it meander naturally again. 

Photo courtesy of South Florida Water Management District.

Using an adaptive management approach based on a "learn-as-you-go" strategy, the Task Force and its partners are using conceptual models of causal relationships of stress in the ecosystem, support studies utilizing performance measures for key stress factors and attributes identified in the conceptual models, and comprehensive monitoring.  Such an approach allows the restoration project partners to implement new strategies based on lessons learned and predicted outcomes in what they are counting on to be a timely manner.

Getting Results

In 1997 the Task Force stated that, "We understand enough about the natural system and the problems we are facing to start crafting solutions, but there is still much to learn."  Much of what the good folks in South Florida have learned is to undo what their predecessors did almost fifty years ago.  A partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, for example, is restoring the ecological integrity of the river and floodplain ecosystem of the Kissimmee River.  Purposefully straightened from its naturally meandering path from about 1950, the Kissimmee became not a river but a canal.  That large act of hydroengineering drastically altered the region's hydropattern, resulting in drainage of two-thirds of the historical floodplain and the loss of thousands of acres of habitat.  But the Kissimmee River Restoration Project will, over a 15-year period, restore 40 square miles of ecosystem by reestablishing inflows from Lake Kissimmee, acquiring 85,000 acres of land for buffer zones, backfilling 22 miles of flood-control canal, removing two existing water-control structures, and recontouring nine miles of former river channel.

Florida's Marine Ecosystems
The South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Project also includes
the fragile marine ecosystems off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. 

Photo courtesy of South Florida Water Management District.

Other ongoing projects are just as important and just as comprehensive:

    The Everglades Program—mandated by the Florida Everglades Forever Act—will improve the quality of agricultural and urban stormwater runoff entering the Everglades, increase the quantity of water delivered to the Everglades, decrease the volume of freshwater entering coastal estuaries, and control exotic species through a multistep restoration plan being implemented by the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

    A series of Water Preserve Areas along Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties has been proposed.  This system will control seepage losses from the Everglades; capture, store, and clean excess agricultural and urban stormwater currently lost to tide; provide a buffer between expanding westward urban development and the Everglades; protect and conserve wetlands outside the Everglades; and protect and enhance the region's water supply.

    The South Florida Multiple-Species Recovery Plan—led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in conjunction with over 200 experts from federal, state, and local agencies, conservation groups, industry, and private interests—is scheduled to be completed this year.  It is the first plan in the nation specifically designed to meet the needs of multiple species that do not occupy similar habitats, as well as to address the needs of an entire watershed.

    The Eastward Ho! Initiative, recommended by the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, will redirect a greater proportion of the expected future development back to the historical eastern corridor of South Florida.  See related article for further information.

    The South Dade Land Use / Water Management Planning Project has been initiated by Dade County to address the interrelated but often competing concerns of agriculture, recreation, tourism, and urban development.  It is based in three plans—the Agricultural and Rural Lands Retention Plan to preserve and promote the agricultural and rural character of 180 square miles of South Dade County; the South Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Plan to identify and analyze surface and groundwater uses and corresponding land uses for restoring the ecosystem, promoting economically viable agriculture, providing flood protection, and ensuring adequate drinking water supplies; and the South Dade Wellfield Study to determine the future water supply for South Dade County.

    Completion of the Florida Keys Carrying Capacity Study, a joint undertaking of the Florida Department of Community Affairs and the Army Corps of Engineers, is expected next year.  The study will provide an information base for decision making about balancing economic and environmental needs in the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Keys.

    A number of federal, state, and local initiatives over the years have preserved land in its natural state.  Since 1934, when Everglades National Park was established, 30 state parks, 17 state aquatic preserves, 11 national wildlife refuges, four national parks, one national marine sanctuary, one national estuarine research reserve, and numerous county land units have been permanently set aside in South Florida.

Researchers have even come up with a proven method for eradicating the staunch Brazilian pepper and other invasive, exotic species.  Although intensive in process, by removing the crushed limestone substrate, the natural vegetation regenerative process occurs, effectively "weeding out" the unwanted species.

South Florida
The South Florida "river of grass" in the wet season.

More Than One Recipe for Success

The solutions to solving the complex and integrated problems of South Florida's degraded ecosystem cannot be found in one or two ingredients, or even one or two recipes.  Rather, it will take a full and diverse cookbook of success to bring back the sacred parts of the necromancer's whole elixir, and then to sustain that elixir—that thriving ecosystem—forever. 

The efforts of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and its many partners are vital in ensuring that the environmental and cultural heritages, as well as economic opportunities, remain integral to South Florida's sustainable development.  With ingredients like Hatchineha, Istokpoga, and Caloosahatchee, and Felis concolor coryi, Haliaetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, and Trichechus manatus (Florida panther, Southern bald eagle, and West Indian manatee), their collaborative efforts are imperative.


A native of Florida, Leslie Peterson received her B.S. from Florida State University in anthropology and her M.A. in anthropology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  She worked for ten years as an archaeologist and cultural resource specialist for the National Park Service and five years as a museum curator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In 1997 she became an editor for the Park Service's Denver Service Center, where she worked closely with the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force producing documents summarizing South Florida ecosystem activities.  She is now a public affairs specialist with the National Park Service.

Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.

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South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force (Florida International University)

South Florida Regional Planning Council and Eastward Ho!

Planning for South Florida´s Future:  The Central and South Florida Project (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

South Florida Water Management District

Everglades National Park

Big Cypress National Park



Bass, Oron L., Jr., William B. Robertson, Jr., and Shirley Beccue.  February 1995.  "Threatened and Endangered Species of Everglades National Park."  National Park Service Website (http://www.nps.gov/
.  Florida National Parks & Monuments Association and National Park Service Office of Public Affairs.

"Big Cypress National Preserve."  http://www.nps.gov/bicy/

Doren, R.F., L.D. Whiteaker, G. Molnar, and D. Sylvia.  "Restoration of Former Wetlands within the Hole-in-the-Donut in Everglades National Park," in Webb, F.J., Jr., Ed.  1990.  Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on Wetlands Restoration and Creation.  Hillsborough Community College: Tampa, Fla.  Pp. 16-25.

"Everglades National Park."  http://www.nps.gov/ever/

"Exotic Species of the National Park Service."  http://www.nature.nps.

McCann, James A., Lori N. Arkin, and James D. Williams.  March 1996.  "Nonindigenous Aquatic and Selected Terrestrial Species of Florida."  Center for Aquatic Plants Website (http://aquat1.ifas.ufl.edu/
.Center for Aquatic Plants, University of Florida: Gainesville, Fla.

Working Group of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.  April 1998.  An Integrated Plan for South Florida Ecosystem Restoration and Sustainability: Success in the Making.  Denver Service Center, National Park Service: Denver, Colo.  29 Pp.



There are no other Everglades in the World. They are, they always have been, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them; their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in the simplicity, the forms of life they enclose . . . It is a river of grass.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
The Everglades: River of Grass


Current Stress Indicators

The Natural System

• 50 percent of the original Everglades has been drained.
• Populations of wading birds have dropped by 90-95 percent.
• 68 plant and animal species are threatened or endangered.
• 2 million acre-feet of water are lost from the natural system annually through discharge and unnatural seepage.
• 1 million acres of the ecosystem are under health advisories for mercury contamination.
• Phosphorus from agricultural runoff has contaminated Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and surrounding wetlands.
• Increased unnatural discharges of freshwater have damaged coastal estuaries.
• The incidence of coral diseases has increased tenfold since 1980.
• Over 1.5 million acres are infested with invasive, exotic species.

The Built System

• South Florida agricultural lands have decreased by 10.7 million acres, or 16 percent.
• By the year 2050, South Florida´s population will increase threefold, from 5 million to 15 million.
• The east coast of Florida has thousands of contaminated brownfield sites.
• The eastern urban corridor of South Florida is characterized by lower income levels and lower home ownership rates than the surrounding suburbs.
• The City of Miami is ranked as the 4th poorest city in the nation.
• Miami-Dade County has the highest unemployment rate in the state of Florida.



The greatest threat to the South Florida ecosystem is to assume the issues are independent.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


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