As my plane pushed back from the gate at Miami International, I couldn’t help but imagine that only a few feet below the wheels of the plane lay a swamp, drained, scraped and paved over, tamed for the time being until the sea level rises and reclaims Runway 26R for the alligators. As the jet arced up and over the urban sprawl, I glanced out the window and saw the stark dividing line where civilization ends and primordial wilderness begins, millions of people living across a highway from a prehistoric ecosystem: the Everglades.
Everglades National Park is 1.5 million acres of some of the most unique wilderness on the planet. It is the largest designated subtropical wilderness area in North America, a vast expanse of wetland marshes, pine rocklands and seagrass shallows that forms the bottom of the Florida peninsula. It is home to one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and an interconnected ecosystem full of unique wildlife, from panthers and crocodiles to wading birds and marine mammals. The Everglades is also a UNESCO Marine World Heritage site, a designation that brings recognition of its uniqueness but also a critical eye to its potential perils.
2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, our country’s crown jewel, and one that Wallace Stegner once famously called “the best idea we ever had.” But while many of them beckon with mountain vistas, scenic drives and breezy campgrounds, the Everglades can seem forbidding, with its humidity, mosquitos and large reptiles. But to truly appreciate this park is to get up close, see the water table just below the rocky soil, observe a manatee swimming among the mangroves, and watch the wetlands bloom after a rainstorm. This summer, we did just that, wading through ankle-deep water, spotting pythons in the grass, and swatting insects in the pine rocklands, shadowing scientists and ecologists whose mission is the preserve the park.