Diaries of a Florida Man

Some incomplete thoughts on the State of Florida, and conservation

When I applied for a job with the US Fish & Wildlife Service in southwestern Florida, I had my doubts. Florida? Isn’t that where people just go to die, or do bath salts? I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life in the mountains, surrounded mostly by like-minded people. Despite having only hiked in the Everglades once in my life for a grand total of a single afternoon, I hit submit. I got the job.

Like most of the leaps I’ve taken in my life I was naturally nervous. This time was different though. I’ve moved a lot, and experience has taught me that most new things are pretty terrifying. A year later though, you always find yourself saying goodbye to another group of friends, and watching a place that started to feel like home disappear into the rear-view mirror. So I did the unimaginable, and left the rocky mountains (again), for what I knew would be a pretty grand adventure – I was not wrong.

Florida’s gulf coast is incapable of having a disappointing sunset

You could say I’m a bit of a ramblin’ man, but this gig was really something else. I was based in the wilderness (ok not designated “wilderness” but whatever), living with just a small handful of people around me, 30 minutes from town. I’ve spent time in some remote places sure, but I’ve never lived in such isolation. I knew it would have its challenges, but honestly, I was really looking forward to it. After what I can now admit was honestly a half-hearted abandonment of my PhD (although still the correct decision), a gut-wrenching break-up, a newfound discontent with myself, and complete indecision about my future, you could say I needed some time to hammer out some things (you can ask my supervisor about my passion for wielding a machete). “The swamp” was the just the place.

Let me take a few minutes to tell you about the Florida I know. Some people call it the “real” Florida, I don’t know if that’s so true anymore, but it’s probably not the Florida you know. As a qualifier let me remind you, I’ve been to the following places (non-exhaustive); the rainforests of Costa Rica, summits of the Rocky Mountains, and the seaside cliffs of California’s Central Coast Mountains. I’ve seen the fall colors of Vermont, the canyonlands of Utah, the blue waters of Greek Islands, and the stunning wild of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. So let me tell you something on the authority of a well traveled man – the swamp is magic.

The swamp

When Europeans first set foot in south Florida, most of them dismissed it as a wasteland (those guys sure were great) – a useless place, home to wicked creatures like alligators, snakes, an unlimited supply of biting insects, and let us not forget the indigenous. The only value they did see in it was surface area, and to fully capitalize, some draining was in order. An impressive network of canals are the only reason much of the developed land in south Florida even exists today. The damage, while not immediately apparent to the untrained eye, is horrific. What I can tell you though , is that while the everglades have been severely impacted, they are still here. While they may not look quite the way they once did, they still hold a unique power with everyone who steps into this realm.

Knee deep in mud, you find yourself in one of those places where a man doesn’t quite feel as in control as he’s used to

The spirit of the swamp is a funky bitch. She bites, she stings, and cuts you, but in doing so, she also makes you feel. Her thunderclouds rumbling over you while a sunset bleeds out the emotion of the day that lies behind you to the west. If you’re looking for a place to find a little bit of yourself, this is it.

Compared to my traditional mountain-side adventures, the swamp is a place where things slow down. There are no double-black diamond moguls or flowing single track mountain bike trails to suck your time away in a flurry of euphoria. It’s just you, your own two (soaking wet) feet, and the swamp. The unique serenity of it creates a different kind of outdoor experience, one that I think has the ability to cut a man as deep as any mountain vista or canyon. Nearly 12 months in, I feel like I have been here 100 years. I could spend 100 more.

The State of the Swamp

What I didn’t know before this adventure came up on my radar was that situated within the greater everglades ecosystem is over 4 million acres of continuous protected conservation lands – that’s nearly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.

For those who have traversed the east-west stretch of Interstate 75 known as “Alligator Alley”, most probably refer to it as a “whole lotta nothing” – they couldn’t be more wrong. There simply isn’t time for me to explain to you how much magic is housed in this place. Birds, reptiles, mammals, butterflies, spiders, fish, frogs, towering trees, plants growing on plants.… to paraphrase a close friend – you’re always surprised when you wander into this place – there’s always something unexpected.

A glimpse of alligator alley from above
Photo: Wikimedia Commons User @formulanone

You should know though, it’s not all butterflies and orchid blossoms down here in the swamp. Despite the magic of this place, wild Florida is still in trouble. Two things we apparently cannot get enough of here in the sunshine state are houses and roads – with Florida now losing a staggering 100,000 acres of land every year to development.

Holy shit
Screen shot: Google Maps

People need places to live, but I think maybe some are starting to realize that its not all that we need. Florida caught me by surprise, like few other places I’ve been, this community seems to be taking conservation pretty seriously. Perhaps the conservation ethic here has to do with the states surprising biodiversity, its wide variety of beautiful habitats and charismatic wildlife, or maybe it’s just a bunch of old farts with nothing better to do. In any case, they seem to be serious about protecting this landscape. Like all the destination states in the US, the people who already live in Florida aren’t too stoked about more people following them in the way they themselves came. People love the Florida they moved to, not the one it is becoming (or has already become in many places).

Good old Ted, a trusty tool for when swamp time is needed

It seems Florida has been fairly successful at the preservation model of conservation. They’ve done a somewhat decent job protecting some very cool places. Thanks to its relatively well-managed coastal habitats, even in the big cities, you’re usually not far from an awe-inspiring wild scene.

Most Floridians appreciate the water, but we seem to have forgotten about the land. Sure, outside of the big parks and federal lands we have a few little “preserves” here and there, but they are increasingly cutoff from the broader wild landscape. Its a worldwide phenomenon, we draw a neat boundary around something especially nice or rare, and then fill in all around it until there’s nothing else left. Many ask, why does the everything else matter? We have our preserves. They’re big “enough” right? After all if you wanna take your foo-foo dog on a “hike” or snap some bird pics there’s probably somewhere you can drive to within 20-30 minutes. I’d like to think this this blog/project is ultimately dedicated to that everything else.

As a community, it’s time for us to ask, is the only time we care enough to act when our backs are up against the wall? Effectively just preserving something for the sake of it, because if we don’t save these last 30 acres, or whatever, then there will be nothing? i.e. “save the Florida Panther – there’s only 25 left”. That’s an emotionally captivating appeal to some, and its worked for some species, but its not proven to be a tremendously successful tactic at keeping landscape-scale ecosystems in-tact. It may be a heart-felt, well-intended effort by the part of the community when we conserve a plot of land in this manner, but at its root, its a superficial one. Our relationship with the land is simply one of humble appreciation from a distance.

For some the beach is the closest they get to Florida’s wildlands

The developers and the opponents of conservation and good land use will always ask – why do we need to conserve this, why go out of our way, why indulge in the luxury of preservation? – our answers will always come up short. The notion that these are the last panthers, or this is the “last place”, or that this place just inherently matters only holds up if you’re one of the people who gives a shit. This is not enough of us.

Indeed, even though most of us don’t prefer to see land developed or species go extinct, in reality most of us still don’t care when 100,000 acres gets developed somewhere else. Its too far removed, we don’t see those bulldozed acres in the Amazon, we’ll never go for a stroll there on a Sunday morning to photograph the birds, why does it matter?

Of course you’re probably not surprised to hear me say this, but all lands matter. Even the land we never see, never “appreciate”, or enjoy. No matter where it is, it has an impact on us, it matters to us, and not just in an inherent, spiritual kind of way. What needs to happen for the conservation movement to achieve the level of effectiveness it so desperately needs? A level where it can begin to effectively conserve these landscapes?

We need to find a way to articulate, so everyone knows, why these places actually matter. We need to connect them to the air we breath, the water we drink and recreate in, the soil we depend on. Its not just the classic broader ecosystem services either, but also the resources we take more directly from the land; the lumber, the deer, the fish, and yes – even the beef. The land gives us so much, it needs to be managed, embraced, and promoted in a way that it can continue to do so, that can actually include Homo sapiens in the ecosystem. This is what garners more support for the landscape-scale conservation efforts that many within the biological community are calling for.

I learned a lot of things during my time in the swamp, this among them. The other is that it’s time for me, and us, to go all in. Who’s with me?

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