A Sea of Grass

Photo via Giovanni Paccaloni, Flickr

BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Fla. (March 19, 2013) — Nearly everybody here has a story of someone who has driven into a canal. That’s just life in the ‘Glades.

Canals cut along all the roads here; they always have. The roads were made by digging the canals and dumping the dirt to form the roadways. Aside from being driving hazards, the canals also are artificial dams, blocking fresh water from flowing north to south. Instead, salty water enters the Everglades from the Gulf of Mexico, making brackish water where previously there used to be fresh. That’s changing the entire ecosystem here.

“It’s turning more (wetlands) into mangroves, which it shouldn’t be,”
says Peter Roth, who works on restoring wetlands for the National Park Service. “It should be sawgrass.”

Today we are working on a project to help restore the fresh-water flow. Artificially raised land needs to be lowered to allow water to flow across it, and artificially lower land — such as the man-made canals — need to be raised in order to allow sawgrass to return.

We are deconstructing buildings on land that is going to be returned to nature. In a year or so, if all goes as planned, cypress saplings will replace the abandoned garages and houses of today, and in the summer a sheet of fresh water will flow across them. In seven years those trees will be about 10 feet tall; and in 20 years they will tower over the wetlands. The roadways will be leveled and the canals will be refilled, allowing the sawgrass to return and the water to flow as it previously had for thousands of years.

By restoring the ground level and giving the area time, the wetlands will heal itself, Roth says.

Tim Carroll, our group leader, stands in a filled-in canal, admires the sawgrass and ponders the future.

“A sea of grass,” he says, referencing how the Native American Seminole tribe called the area.

Roth is thinking about the future too: “Hopefully you guys can be back in 20 years and see the progress,” he says.

Whether or not we do indeed return in 20 years, each of us will end the day knowing that we played a part in helping make that progress possible.