Swamped

Saving the Glades could mean screwing these guys.

A clump of iron wires dangles from a boat in the cool brown canal. On this breezy April morning, a few hundred volts crackle through the metal strands into the water.

Barron Moody sweeps a net through the murk and pulls up six bass. The stunned fish shimmy side to side in slow confusion, their wet scales refracting yellow and blue in the sun. Moody tosses them into a half-full holding pool and grins.

"It's unbelievable, right?" Moody asks.

Moody is a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and it's his job to keep an eye on the birds, alligators, and bass that live here in the Everglades.

In a few hours, Moody will count up the fish in his boat. A few years ago, his colleagues found 8,000 fish in one stretch of this 26-mile canal just north of the Tamiami Trail. Fishermen were hooking almost two bass every hour, pretty much negating the old joke "that's why they call it fishing and not catching."

You might not know it by its name, but the L-67A canal, just 30 miles west of downtown Miami, is one of the best fishing holes on planet Earth. Every weekend, anglers from as far away as North Carolina and New Mexico haul their boats here to float over the cattail-choked culverts and reel in the big bass.

But it might not survive the next generation. If Everglades restoration projects go forward as planned, this canal will be backfilled with dirt.

"It's a shame," says Rick Persson, a retired Miami Beach firefighter leaning on the wheel of his sleek boat. He smiles at Moody's bounty of fish. "Kids now won't be able to enjoy this when they're my age."

Persson has fished the L-67A for more than 30 years. The Miami native used to hop in a pickup with his dad every weekend, hitch up a rusty old sloop, and drive home nine hours later sunburned and stocked with bass dinners for the week.

"When I came out here in the '70s with a johnboat and a 10-horsepower motor, the canals were totally clear," says the 69-year-old Persson. "No one had quite caught on to how good the fishing was."

Now that he's retired, Persson travels the country to fish in big-money tournaments. Whenever he's home, he drags his new yellow and black Skeeter bass boat to the waters where he caught the fishing bug. And most days, he ends up with a better haul than at all the more famous lakes and rivers he visits on the road.

With all the news about the billion-dollar Everglades restoration plan, you don't hear much from people like Persson, who think the project as it stands might actually do more harm than good.

Folks like Persson don't dispute that the Everglades needs saving. One hundred years of men digging ditches, poaching gators, and paving suburbs farther and farther into the swampland has left one of America's most important ecosystems in peril.

Everglades restoration has suddenly become a national priority under President Obama. Just last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rode an airboat through the swamp and bragged about $200 million in new federal funding.

But as environmentalists absorb the biggest infusion of cash in a decade from the federal government, Persson and like-minded activists around the Glades are raising some inconvenient concerns. They question whether the new purchase will accomplish anything and worry about the jobs it will cost in the poor towns around Lake Okeechobee. That's why I've hitched a ride on his boat this afternoon and why, over the next several weeks, I will travel hundreds of miles to visit others who could lose out on Glades restoration in places such as Okeelanta, Pahokee, and South Bay.

Their fight over the future of the Glades is the latest in a centuries-old struggle between man and nature, a battle that was seemingly won a hundred years ago, before we realized the cost of our victory.

Now, as we backpedal and try to undo what we've done to the River of Grass, it's worth asking how far we intend to go. Will we ever return the land to the way it was 300 years ago? Would we really want to?

For Persson and others like him, the answer is no. There's room, they say, for man and nature in the Everglades.

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Okeelanta

The directions are easy.

"Drive north until you see something," the Florida Crystals rep says. "Then turn left."

Cruising up U.S. 27, the 50-mile ribbon of asphalt bisecting the Everglades between Alligator Alley and Lake Okeechobee, I see what he means.

There's nothing out here. Flat acres of saw grass and dry brown shrubs stretch to the sky on either side. There are no billboards. And no signs for gas stations or rest stops, because there aren't any.

It's easy to see why this desolate landscape tempted the first white settlers who ventured into South Florida. It looks like a useless swamp. And the urge to turn nothing into something is powerful, especially in America.

In its natural state, the Everglades was actually more a massive, molasses-slow river than a swamp. All the water in the Kissimmee Valley poured into Lake Okeechobee. From the vast shallow pool, water seeped south across millions of acres of muck. The land was just a few inches above sea level, high enough for water to creep toward Florida Bay a few feet a day.

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