God's Country

Live alligators. Dead snakes. Howling owls. About the only thing the Everglades doesn't have is a bright future.

Podgor is hardly alone in his concerns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has raised questions about the Huizenga site in a two-page missive written last November by field supervisor David L. Ferrell to the Florida Attorney General; the letter acknowledges that the Wayne's World tract is riddled with melaleuca, but says the area qualifies as an important sawgrass wetlands. The zone also includes a fertile hardwood hammock, marshes, a wading bird habitat, and a wood stork rookery. Wood storks, magnificent birds of considerable size and colorful beauty, are endangered. Ferrell warned the state about the "direct loss of the values and functions of on-site wetlands, primarily with respect to wildlife habitat."

All these issues are important, but I just wanted to spy a bobcat or rabbit or raccoon or a king snake.

When Lenny from Queens and I headed out on our primer trip, we talked about what we most wanted to see. I set my sights fairly high. I find owls interesting, awesome even, and you rarely encounter them, even in the deepest, darkest parts of the Glades. It's silly to even think about catching a glimpse of a panther. I told Lenny I'd settle for a bobcat. Of course I wanted to find snakes, particularly the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, one species whose maximum size exceeds the green water snake A by two or three feet. With the exception of a few moccasins and pygmy rattlers, I've never caught a venomous snake, hardly even seen them. All of my selections were long shots. "I don't know," Lenny said. "I'd like to see a hawk. And a raccoon would be good." A few minutes later we spotted a big, mottled hawk that flew over us as we drove into the Miramar area in the heart of Huizenga country. "Cool," Lenny said.

Yes, it was. It reminded me of when I was very young, maybe six or seven, and my father would take me out the Trail for some early-morning fishing. We saw the predatory birds everywhere -- my dad always told me they were "chicken hawks." God, how I remember those dawns in the swamp with my father, all that life, my overwhelming wonderment.

When we wound up near the county line, on both the Turnpike and I-75, Dade and Broward side, all around where Blockbuster Entertainment Park will be, Lenny and I saw the clash of rural beauty and urban encroachment clearly. And the damn theme park isn't even built yet. Heading north on 75, we turned our heads away from the first roadkill -- a fat domestic cat. There were no houses nearby and I wondered silently how the feline got there to die. Bearing west, we saw houses within 100 yards of grazing horses. We ran into a string of fresh developments with names like Spring Valley and Chapel Trail, the landscape trees still braced by support planks. The housing tracts sprouting like warts are suburban; soon, I'm sure, full urbanism will be reached. These are, Lenny informs me, "planned communities." Whose plan is this?

We circled back south, taking U.S. 27, attempting to escape an area where the houses grew closer and closer together. We knew that was no way to go.

There's so much wild land out here, plenty of it, yet not enough. Maybe we just can't see the ecology for the trees. Lenny and I can certainly view FOR SALE signs, stuck in the thick vegetation, as ominous as storm clouds on the horizon. Undeveloped land open to anyone with the money, and zoning clearance, to ruin it.

Only chunks, about twenty percent, of what we call the Everglades -- which once encompassed the southern half of the state -- are "protected" by legislation. Laws prohibit anyone from hunting or harming the flora and fauna within places such as Everglades National Park. The success or failure of enforcement is impossible to gauge, of course, and no law can prevent a car from inadvertently running over a rabbit or snake. And the water, the poisoned lifeblood of the Glades, flows through regardless of laws, bringing its mercury and phosphorus and other pollutants with it. Today the Glades are considered to be all the land inland from coastal development, north from Florida Bay to the Everglades Agricultural Area near Lake Okeechobee. The way things are going, in a few years the Glades will have shriveled to nothing more than Everglades National Park, Big Cypress, the Fakahatchee Strand, and other protected preserves. The rest will be gone, and by then even those places will probably be toxically ruined anyway. Or perhaps they'll be paved over for theme parks.

Bloody 27 might be South Florida's most rural highway, and soon Lenny and I spotted another hawk. "And check out those kingfishers on the power lines," I added. Every so many yards, up on the wires, solitary kingfishers perched, really cool birds with blue and white feathering and dark crests. But for us to see a bobcat or owl or rattlesnake -- or, who knows, a panther -- we needed to get off ol' Bloody and onto an access road or dirt trail. "Lenny, you just can't see it, feel it," I told him, "unless you get out and walk around in it."

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