The radio crackled the news as I slowed and turned right off state Highway 41 west of Homestead. “Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today announced plans to establish a new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.”
“Halleluiah”! I shouted as I drove across the levee and up the gravel rise to park with a view of a vast ocean of marshy grassland bordering the busy trans-Everglades two-lane highway known as the Tamiami Trail (or, more colloquially, “Alligator Alley.”)
I had come to this spot in search of the rare Everglades Snail Kite, a medium-sized steel- blue hawk with a hooked bill and fire-engine red talons that it uses to dine on the apple snails found in this fragile freshwater ecosystem.
Our existing Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. It takes two hours to drive its breadth on the way from Naples to Miami, yet it is only one-fifth the size of the ecosystem that John James Audubon found here a century and a half ago. For years the combination of road building, development and expanding conversion of wetlands to agricultural uses have shrunk this habitat, snail by snail, kite by kite. As the Everglades dry up, the snails disappear and along with them this endangered raptor.
But now a new combination of environmental activism, changing economics, and the vision of political leaders is leading to new hope for the Everglades’ rich biological riot of flora and fauna.
A new park, called the Headwaters Park would protect the source of water flowing from Lake Okeechobee south. Downstream, critical chokepoints are being widened. For years the Tamiami Trial highway has acted as a dam for the natural, meandering flow of the water needed to sustain the wetlands that make up the Everglades. The road was built with culverts - narrow pipes designed to prevent the water from flooding the road - but they have been insufficient to maintain the health of this remarkable ecosystem.
We have come to understand that the arteries of the Everglades have been clogged by this road design, and the system will die if we do not operate, stat. Fortunately, a mile-long bridge is under construction, to be followed by 5.5 more miles of raised highway to allow the waters to flow and the system to function as nature intended.
By raising up the Tamiami Trial, we are raising the chances that this remarkable watery wilderness will last for another generation of kite searchers.
I lifted my binoculars to scan the wind-blown landscape, and was thrilled to spot not one, but two hawks coursing low over the prairie marsh, dark shapes flashing a conspicuous white rump patch as they hovered and glided just over the tops of the marsh grasses.
“Kites!” I yelled, to no one and everyone. “Snail Kites!”
Photo courtesy of Robb Bennett, US Geological Survey