No other place combines a subtropical climate, a broad, shallow river, and a stunning diversity of plants and animals into such a complex and fragile ecosystem. No other place is so dramatically defined by annual rhythms of drought and flood, fire and sunshine and torrential rains. Everglades National Park is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States. Its abundant wildlife includes rare and endangered species, such as the American crocodile, Florida panther, and West Indian manatee. It has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetlands of International Importance, in recognition of its significance to all the peoples of the world.Once Water flowed freely from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, a River of Grass 120 miles long and 50 miles wide, but less than a foot deep. In this flat landscape, even a few inches of elevation meant the difference between wet marsh and dry ground. Today, the Everglades is an ecosystem in danger. Canals and levees capture and divert its water for human needs, including drinking water, irrigation, and flood control. Often, too much water is withheld from the everglades during the wet season, or too much is diverted into it during the winter drought, disrupting the natural cycles of feeding and nesting animals, which depend on these patterns. Sometimes pollutants contaminate the water. Faced with loss of habitat, disruption of water flow, and invasion of non-native species, many animals have declined dramatically in number. Some have virtually disappeared.
Fortunately, in recent years we have grown more aware of these threats, and of the importance of resolving them. Major efforts are under way to restore the natural flow of water through this river of grass. Research projects help us better understand the Everglades, and what it will take to protect it. One thing is for certain: As the human population of South Florida continues to grow, the challenge of balancing human needs with those of the natural ecosystem will be great. It will take education, commitment, and the participation of everyone that lives or visits the south Florida area. More than fifty years ago, our grandparents created a National Park in the Everglades, to protect its magnificent biological resources. What will our grandchildren find when they visit the Everglades fifty years from now?