The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Showdown in West Palm Beach

Joseph Bentley
IDH 4007
Spring 2002

   The history of South Florida resembles, in many ways, the classic Hollywood westerns that are so familiar to us all. South Florida had its freedom and fortune seeking pioneers and assorted eccentric characters. Clashes between the indigenous people and the pioneers were common. And, like the Old West in the movies, South Florida was an exciting but hard to tame land. But unlike Hollywood's depiction of the Old West, the good guys in Florida didn't always wear white hats and the bad guys didn't always wear black. It is much more difficult to discern who the bad guys are and who the good guys are in South Florida history. This holds true to this day.

   South Florida history is full of good guys who, when investigated, turn out to be rather shady characters. And in the other direction, there were many apparently bad guys, who in retrospect may not have been so bad after all. Was Ed Brewer the Ed Brewer of Across the Everglades or was he more like the Ed Brewer in Killing Mr. Watson? Was Mr. Watson a totally bad character? Did Henry Flagler create or destroy South Florida with his East Coast Railroad? In order to figure out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in South Florida history, it is important to think about how attitudes and perceptions of what constitutes good and what constitutes bad have changed. It has been mentioned a few times in class that the slogan "Save the Everglades" means today something quite different from what it meant historically. Eighty years ago "Save the Everglades" was a call to drain, develop and pave over what people saw as a watery wasteland. Those who created plans to do so were, at the time, perceived to be the good guys. Currently, the good guys who fight to "Save the Everglades" are the conservationists, environmentalists and concerned citizens who are on the front lines in the battle against development of the unique wetland. Given the complexity of South Florida history, the people who created it and the change in values and perceptions, it is quite difficult indeed to figure out just who should be wearing the white hats and who should be wearing the black hats.

   This dilemma particularly struck me throughout our visit to the South Florida Water Management District's headquarters. Certainly none of the representatives were wearing white or black hats and I kept trying to determine whether the District is a friend or foe in terms of Everglades conservation. One of the things that immediately caught my eye was their motto, "South Florida Water Management District: Protector of the Everglades." My cynical side wondered how the District could refer to itself as "protector of the Everglades" when the agency exists as the current product of a long history of attempts to drain and destroy the entire ecosystem. I became even more skeptical when the spokesperson handed out the slickly designed and packaged folders of information on the District and its activities. The information packets filled with key words such as "balancing", "improving" and "managing" seemed almost like propaganda. The district spokesperson with her sweet nature seemed like the perfect spokesperson. Would she wear a white hat or a black hat? As I saw more of the facility's inner workings I felt a real sadness at the reality of how incredibly altered the contemporary Everglades system is. We have read about the alteration and even discussed it in class several times, but when standing at Pay-Hay-Okee or the Shark Valley observation tower the reality seems not so significant. Employing the Hollywood analogy again, it's a bit like seeing a behind-the-scenes show about a favorite movie…it takes some of the magic away. My sadness evolved into anger at the damage we have done to the Everglades. I felt angry that the District saw itself as a necessary protector of the Everglades.

   After wrestling with these feelings for a few days I have found a middle ground. I am still sad and angry when I think about our history of "playing God" with the Everglades. I still feel skeptical towards the District, though I just can't imagine that the nice spokesperson would be wearing a black hat. But, I have to accept some responsibility myself. I choose to live in South Florida. I use water from the Everglades. I don't want to lose my livelihood because of a flood. I benefit from the work that the District has done and yet I feel a sense of animosity towards it. My conclusion is this: The Everglades has been severely altered in really fundamental ways. It's too late to change the fact. Millions of people now live in South Florida and depend on the water resources of the area. I do believe that the Nutrient Removal Project and Everglades Restoration Project that the District is working on are impressive and commendable. It's hard to assign a white or black hat to the District. It's too complex for that. But isn't everything that involves the Everglades complex?

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