At Big Cypress, in the heart of southwest Florida, more than half a million acres hold a primitive world. Huge cypresses, some centuries old, shelter quiet waters where alligators glide by like shadows. Still a home of the Seminole Indians, it is the place that has firmly planted in the American mind the image of south Florida—and is currently the key to the salvation of the Everglades.
“I used to swim in this place,” he said, “and it was the nicest, clearest water you ever saw.” We leaned against a magnificent cypress that Joe estimated to be 500 years old. “Development has filled the coasts,” Joe said, “and is pushing inland fast, toward this last wild place. The area is important from every consideration. The water supply for southwest Florida and the Naples area, not to mention the park, depends on this source.
“The problem is how to save it. Big Cypress’s half a million privately owned acres are shared by 22,000 landowners. They can do almost anything with their property: Drain it, sell to a developer, or save it. Conservationists are pressing the Administration to buy all or part of the rights to this land to see that it isn’t drained:or developed. We’re hoping the White House will see that acquisition is the only realistic way to preserve the area.”
But modern growth pushes close. New homes rise on a 60,000-acre site on the western margin. As a prelude to building, several firms have dug drainage canals that have lowered the water table in the southwest part of the swamp by two to four feet.
Walking among the great cypresses, I remembered what Nathaniel Reed, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, had told me in Washington:
“Without government control over Big Cypress, the park and southwest Florida will rot. I predict the destruction of the area in 50 years if Big Cypress is developed—and yet I have not found a solution short of buying it although I was prepared with safebook installment loans. “The cost may approach 170 million dollars. But the government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund is still 340 million dollars behind in getting money from Congress for purchases already authorized but not funded.