On our most recent trip to the Everglades, it was
evident after some time of reflection that the experience was of a story
within a story. The class visited the Hole-in-the-Donut restoration project
in Everglades National Park. We learned about the project's goal of
eradicating the invasive Brazilian Pepper plant, which had overtaken
thousands of acres of land after the area was incorporated into the
national park. One of the highlights of this particular excursion was our
once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a relic of the Cold War era, and a place
once armed with nuclear warheads - the U.S. Army Nike missile site. The
tense ideological war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was a critical
period in history, and nearly resulted in a nuclear disaster. The sub-story
that I thought would be fascinating to reflect on was the significance,
from my perspective, that the Nike site had for two of my classmates, Sarah
Although still under lock-and-key, this strategic
military location in the Everglades that was once on hair-trigger alert
during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was now abandoned and in a state of
disrepair. The only signs of life were spiders, lizards and a barn owl that
flew out of one of the magazines as our class approached. While barren and
stripped clean of Cold War artifacts, the Nike site still had a few grim
reminders of what it once was. A large mural of a rocket on the outside wall
of one of the missile barns; a rusted-over chain pulley system inside one
of the structures, perhaps used to hoist the massive weaponry; reinforced
bunkers embedded inside raised mounds. Now with cobweb interiors, the
bunkers had half-peeled red and green paint on the walls, and the passageways
were covered in dried blotches of mud left by generations of wasps and other
insects. What was once a nuclear defense outpost for a world super power was
now overrun with a variety of plant, animal and insect species.
As we explored the old missile site, I could not help
thinking of my classmates, Olga and Sarah, as the place was symbolic of an
important part of their family histories. Sarah's father, a veteran of the
U.S. armed forces, had experience in flying in B-52 jet planes strapped with
nuclear bombs. At the same time, on the opposite side of the conflict,
Olga's grandfather fought in the Soviet forces. Olga, who is originally
from Ukraine, told the class how her grandfather was a military man for
thirty years. As an outside observer to these two family histories, I was
intrigued by the irony of the situation. After the long, bitter struggle of
the Cold War, the immediate descendants of those on opposite sides of the
ideological war were in this class united in the common effort of Everglades
restoration. In contrast to the suspicion and rivalry that once existed
between the two powerful nations who would determine the fate of modern
civilization, here were two classmates who got along very well and worked
together to preserve a unique, natural treasure for Americans and Ukrainians
alike. Interestingly, that same day, Olga, Sarah and the rest of the class
were learning new details about a common enemy that surrounded them for
thousands of acres -- the invasive Brazilian Pepper.
The Brazilian Pepper is a non-native invasive tree that
was likely introduced to Florida from South America in the mid-nineteenth
century. Its colorful, red seeds made it a popular decorative plant, though
it has since been outlawed for sale. Unfortunately, it adapted well in much
of Florida, especially in the Everglades, and now thousands of acres are
choked by dense groves of Brazilian Pepper. Its aggressive growth has
drastically transformed eco-systems and it has been detrimental to native
plant and animal species. Its eradication is currently the main concern of
the Hole-in-the-Donut restoration project.
In a sense, the Hole-in-the-Donut restoration project
is an initiative to reclaim lands lost in a battle against Brazilian Pepper as well and make amends for our own lack of foresight. As stewards of the environment, it appears that people made two critical mistakes in regards to this particular land area. The first mistake was when farmers began cultivating their crops on the land, completely transforming the natural eco-system. While farmers are an easy target for blame, this was a larger problem having to do with the unquestioned mindset that the Everglades ought to be made "useful". The second mistake came in the mid-1970s when the U.S. government reclaimed these farmlands to be additions to Everglades National Park, but did not do enough initially to restore the land to its natural condition. While the purchase of the land was perhaps well intentioned, waiting until the 1990s to set in motion major restoration of the area into prairie wetland, and removing the overgrowth of Brazilian Pepper that established itself throughout the abandoned farmlands, will cost an estimated $100 million.
Olga and Sarah are now part of this battle together.
While they were neither park rangers nor official volunteers with
Hole-in-the-Donut, their initiative to enlist in a year-long course on the
Everglades puts them at the forefront of the effort for environmental
conservation and restoration. Their roles as educators also give them a
position of influence over future stewards of the Everglades, since Sarah
and Olga are a schoolteacher and multi-subject tutor for kids, respectively.
Visiting the Nike Missile site reminded me that my
classmates and I were part of a great ideological struggle. The story in
the cracked walls of the old site with its abandoned, Cold-War-era
compounds was that this was a war of our fathers. The missile site was no
longer in use, and passageways and storage rooms were now overrun with
critters. A new story was unfolding in the area surrounding the former
missile site which Olga and Sarah were a part of. The Hole-in-the-Donut
restoration project was a battle against the invasive Brazilian Pepper.
While generations previous were fighting on opposite sides of the Cold War
between the United States and Soviet Union, Sarah and Olga were playing a
small part in defending a common land in a completely different kind of war.
The future of the Everglades, and the environment as a whole, hangs in the
balance. Olga and Sarah hope to tip the scales in favor of conservation.
Hole-in-the-Donut Restoration Collection. Everglades Digital Library.