Climate change is real. Anybody who has waded through the streets of South Beach up to their waist in seawater, sewage, rain, and groundwater to find their car half-submerged in the soup or walked outside to find that the king tide has pushed the canals over the seawalls and up to their front door knows this to be true. There is hardly anyplace in the United States that's facing the perils of climate change more than the Sunshine State. And though it might be difficult to turn our attention away from the rising seas, one of the most pressingly important pieces of Florida's future lies inland: the Everglades.
To many Floridians, the Everglades can be taken for granted as little more than empty space. Some write it off as a sprawling tourist attraction, one too boring to be bothered with unless they're crossing from coast to coast or making a joke about python hunting. But Everglades conservation is no laughing matter. It's an absolute necessity.
Charles J. Kropke is an author, entrepreneur, and environmental activist who has owned the tour company Dragonfly Expeditions for the past 27 years. Kropke also served as a first lieutenant for more than a decade in the volunteer efforts of the Everglades Restoration Movement. He ha created a number of PBS films, including Miami Beach: 100 Years of Making Waves and The Unseen Everglades: Stories of a Legendary Wilderness, which won an Emmy. Now he’s releasing a project with PBS titled Battleground: Everglades, a six-part series dedicated to looking at both the wonders of the Everglades and the dangers that face them.
"The light take on it — you know, the occasional Burmese python and speculation on how many people it’s going to eat, the airboats and the CSI approach — that’s all for entertainment, and that’s good and fine," Kropke says. "But in the serious adult world that we all live in, the truth of the matter is that the Everglades is essential, and our quality of life as long as it will last here in Florida is based on that."
The series sees Kropke in the field with experts, from scientists to Miccosukee Indians, exploring issues facing the width and breadth of the Everglades, from Shingle Creek all the way down to Florida Bay. The focus of each episode will be different, ranging from the effects of algal bloom in 2016 to the long and checkered history of manmade threats to Lake Okeechobee. But as a whole, its narrative cohesion will come from Kropke's earnest belief that something must be done to tackle these issues if people want to continue living in Florida.
"If you take this latitude around the globe, you find nothing but deserts every place but here," he explains, which is true of practically everywhere outside Southeast Asia. "And to think that this is a given is basically the wrong body of thought, because should we break the rain cycle, which is simply drying up the Glades or draining the Glades or losing the surface water, desertification is absolutely certain for this region as well. We’re just lucky enough to have the Glades and how they work, feeding the clouds, giving us the rainfall and the high precipitation that make life possible here."
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Kropke's dedication goes beyond filmmaking. He recently extricated seven abandoned vehicles from the Everglades after he was made aware of them; he knew they were bleeding oil and fluids into the water, and he knew nobody else would do anything about the problem. He describes his days as a weekend warrior with the Everglades Restoration Movement, chopping away at invasive melaleuca trees and returning to the office where he once worked with wrists ripped to ribbons by sawgrass. It's clear he genuinely relishes the memory of those uncomfortable days hacking away in the heat.
And when asked why he does the things he does, from the PBS productions to the weekend projects with his kids backfilling ditches or covering canals that leech surface water, his answer is simple, sincere, and poignant.
"I have children," he explains. "I have one grandchild. And I love Miami. I don’t want it to disappear under the sea. Do I know for certain whether we’re tilting against windmills or do I know that we can be effective? No. But the thing is, the only people who get things done are people who take action."
Battleground Everglades. Premieres at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 7, on WPBT and 8 p.m. Thursday, February 8, on WXEL.