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The Everglades, Florida, USA



Sonny Williamson

Sonny Williamson

We’re trying to find ways to restore wetlands and to do it in a way that will really benefit the water quality when it finally does leave the land and also to store the water there and not sort of pipeline it straight into Lake Okeechobee and pipeline it into the everglades.

Paul Gray

When you put a whole lot of phosphorous pollution in Lake Okeechobee and in the everglades, the cattails take over everything. Basically the cattails get so thick that no wild life can live in there.There’s almost nothing that feeds in cattails. The water underneath the cattails, the water underneath the cat tails is low in oxygen and there are a lot of bugs down there and birds can’t wade through there because it’s too thick. Ducks can’t swim in there because it’s too thick and it just becomes kind of a biological desert out there.

Robert Engelman, Population Action International

Wild species are facing the prospect of a kind of demographic winter, a period of time in which there are so many human beings on the planet and their economic needs are so great they have so dominated the planet that it’s very difficult for wild life to survive.

At first glance, Florida's Everglades seems like a forbidding primordial wilderness — an unspoiled breeding ground and nursery for plants and animals. It offers sanctuary to millions of migrating birds. Despite the abundance of animals this is a wetland ecosystem in peril.

Close to ninety percent of the bird population is gone. Over a dozen Everglades animals are on the endangered species list, including the wood stork, the manatee and the green turtle. Once the Everglades were home to over fifteen hundred Florida panthers. Today only about 80 remain in the wild. And now, like the panther, the entire ecosystem is on the verge of disappearing.

Florida's Everglades

Florida's Everglades

It was only a hundred years ago when the seasonal rains were free to flow into the meandering rivers of Central Florida. The natural filtering process of the surrounding wetlands cleansed the water. And as the rivers made their way south, they fed into Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake within the borders of United States. From there the water slowly flowed across the marshland, eventually giving life to the Everglades. But now the lake is surrounded not by wetlands, but by the urban sprawl of 10 million people.

To meet the needs of an exploding economy nearly eighty percent of Florida’s original wetlands have been drained — its water diverted into canals to satisfy the thirsty demands of an expanding tourism and agricultural economy.

And in return, cattle ranches and farms discharge the watery residue of agricultural chemicals like phosphorous back into Lake Okeechobee. After decades of abuse, the lake is showing signs of severe damage. And whenever there is competition over water, wildlife are always the first to suffer.

Although most biologists concede that the Everglades can never be returned to its original state, many experts believe the environmental damage can to a large extent be reversed. And help is coming from an unlikely source.

Cattle range bordering the Everglades

Cattle range bordering the Everglades

In Florida, cowboys are called crackers and cattle ranching is big business. It represents almost a half billion dollars in annual sales. For hundreds of years there was always enough land for both wildlife and cattle. But in recent years they have been competing for the same land and the same water.

Not so on the Williamson ranch. Located less than 15 miles from Lake Okeechobee, its eight thousand acres are among the most productive and lush pieces of land in south Florida. Sonny Williamson considers himself a good steward of the land. He knows that something must be done to restore the everglades dwindling wildlife habitat.

Herding cattle in the Everglades

Herding cattle in the Everglades


Our connection with nature is extremely important I believe; and I donít know what happens to the human being when he is completely urbanized. But I donít really want to be around when that happens.

— Sonny Williamson

What Sonny Williamson and some of his neighbors are doing is not channeling their tainted agricultural run-off back into the lake, but rather holding it on the land and turning unused portions of their property into wetland sanctuaries.

Only after the ecosystem naturally filters out the chemical residue is the water allowed to return to Lake Okeechobee. And in the process new wetland habitats have been created — habitats that are essential for the preservation of wildlife species in the Everglades. It’s a program that is both good for the environment and economically sustainable for the ranchers.

Clearly the greatest challenge for South Florida is trying to find the right balance between rapid urbanization and the need to save the Everglades.



Read more about The State of the Planet’s Wildlife:
Introduction | Montana | The Everglades | Zambia


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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
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