Holiday idea: Reading about the politics of the Everglades

Florida swampThe Everglades get more tourist visits during this time of year than any other. That makes it a great time to also read about the history of the ecosystem and some of the political battles that have shaped it.

Then Time Magazine National Editor (current Politico writer) Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise was written over a decade ago but remains a timeless and important book for those interested in Florida to read. I originally finished the book on a transcontinental flight from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles in 2006 in the days before I had an iPod. The book was a keeper and explained the background of so much of what I observed in politics between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s. For this reason, I intended to keep it handy and at my fingertips. Unfortunately, my dog Sebastian had other plans and he tore the book to pieces in a fashion that kids who look for excuses with submitting homework can only imagine.

But a few years later, I bought a Kindle and was able to repurchase the book in digital form. Thus, I have been able to reread the book on multiple occasions.  Grunwald discusses how the Everglades and Florida south of Orlando was the last frontier in the continental United States. The western frontier was officially closed in 1890 but the “Florida frontier” persisted on for years, though not a designated “frontier” by the United States Government.

The story begins with Hamilton Disston a Philadelphia industrialist buying 4,000,000 acres of land and dreams of draining the Everglades. Disston went broke but his investments helped develop Kissimmee, St Cloud and Tarpon Springs as well as fueling the growth of St Petersburg into a major city.

As the population began to drift southward, Arcadia became a major frontier type town resembling what had been prevalent in the wild west in previous decades. Eventually Napoleon Bonaparte Broward who was Governor from 1901 to 1909 pushed for the draining of the Everglades and a new era was born. Channelization of rivers, building of canals and the resulting ecological damage is covered in depth.

The political discussions and culture around “reclaiming” the Everglades evolved over time and the narrative Grunwald paints gives a the reader a detailed feel for how Florida’s politicians and activists changed attitude wise towards the “River of Grass” between the 1920s and 1960s. It was a steady movement from drainage, to development to environmental consciousness.

Also covered in depth is the political battle over the creation of Biscayne National Park and the fight to prevent the building of the Everglades Jetport.

For anyone interested in Florida politics, the Everglades or the development of South Florida, this book is a must read. As is this next book which is a little pricier but packed with information.


River of Interests: Water Management in South Florida and the Everglades, 1948-2010 is a complete and definitive history of the Everglades ecosystem in the second half of the 20th Century. The book which is incredibly well-researched and written covers the draining of significant portions of the Everglades, the original channelization of many of the rivers in the area and the building of the Lake Okeechobee protective dike which occurred after the tragic 1928 Hurricane.

After covering that background, the book gives a full view of the state of flood control and water management in 1948, right after the publication of The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the opening of Everglades National Park. From there the environmental battles of the 1960’s are closely covered including the Everglades Jetport controversy which formed the centerpiece for the background of Michael Grunwald’s excellent book about the political battles around the Everglades, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

The environmental awakening of the 1960’s led to a shift in the politics around water control and management. Issues like Lake Okeechobee’s future the rerouting of the Kissimmee River and preservation of Big Cypress suddenly became major political issues that both parties had to deal with. While a consensus had developed prior to the 1960’s to develop as aggressively as possible and to develop flood control to service growing human populations, from the late sixties onward both parties raced to look more environmentally friendly. Modern liberalism incorporated environmental principles as a core tenant which drive Democrats, while Republicans who were concerned about attracting business to Florida wanted to keep the state’s water supply solvent and the landscape of the state attractive for relocations.

By the 1980’s a consensus had developed in the state, among both political parties that water management and protecting the Everglades was critical. The book covers these discussions and battles including Dexter Lehtinen’s landmark lawsuit described as the “Ultimate Hammer” to force Everglades restoration. The battles over the nuances of restoration between the late 1980’s and 2000 are covered in depth. Throughout the 1990’s environmental issues were among the most contentious and discussed in the legislature.

The book cuts off after the year 2000, when the consensus about the Everglades and water management was still holding. However, in recent years while lip service has been paid by politicians of both parties, water management and environmental preservation have become lesser issues.

While this book is very expensive it is also a vital read for policymakers in this state. Obtaining a copy and understanding the background to the battles over water management and environmental protection are vital for all who seek to lead this state.

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