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Sun rises above pine trees and a layer of mist on the ground, Everglades National Park. Photo by QT Luong.

Everglades National Park

Seminole Indians with dugout canoes, Everglades National Park, 1921 Add to Scrapbook

Seminole Indians with dugout canoes, Everglades National Park, 1921

The Florida Everglades, described by writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas as "a river of grass," are comprised of sawgrass marsh punctuated by cypress swamps and mangrove forests – an ecosystem unlike anything else on earth. The rich landscape supports over 1,000 different species of plants and is the only place where alligators and crocodiles can be found living side by side. It is also the critical breeding ground for a large variety of wading birds.

In the 1800s, the Seminole Indians, who had been driven out of Florida, sought refuge deep in the cypress trees, as did the Miccosukee tribe and hundreds of runaway slaves.

Federal agents with egrets confiscated from poachers Add to Scrapbook

Federal agents with egrets confiscated from poachers

An extreme example of feathered hats Add to Scrapbook

An extreme example of feathered hats

By 1900, the long, white plumes of egrets that lived in the Everglades had become more valuable than gold. Feathers were in fashion and no woman's hat, it seemed, was complete without an array of plumes. Some hats even included entire stuffed birds. To satisfy the demands of this fashion trend, more than five million birds a year were being slaughtered. Nearly 95 percent of Florida's shore birds had been killed by plume hunters.

The Audubon Society tried unsuccessfully to persuade women not to buy hats with feathers, while the powerful millinery industry used its influence in Congress to defeat a series of national laws aimed at stopping the slaughter of birds.

An unlikely champion stepped forward in the form of Iowa Congressman John F. Lacey. Despite being part of a group of die-hard conservatives, when it came to defending wildlife, Lacey was one of the most progressive politicians of his day. After years of ceaseless effort, he won passage of the Lacey Bird and Game Act of 1900. The bill made it a federal crime to transport birds killed in violation of any state law, and soon government agents were confiscating huge shipments of bird skins and feathers.

In the lawless Everglades, the Lacey Act did not put an end to plume hunting. Poachers hid out and slaughtered the birds there with impunity. Five years after the bill's passage, a game warden was murdered by poachers. Three years after that, another one was gunned down.

Dredging the Everglades, 1924 Add to Scrapbook

Dredging the Everglades, 1924

An even greater danger threatened to destroy the entire Everglades: proposals to drain the marshes and turn the vast wetland into a developer's dream. While mechanized dredges dug drainage canals, real estate speculators began selling land at steadily increasing prices. Some of the land sold was still under water.

With the real estate boom, much of the northern Everglades was turned into sugar cane plantations, vegetable fields, and cattle ranches.

In the late 1920s, a small movement dedicated itself to saving as much of the remaining Everglades as possible. The Florida Federation of Women's Clubs had already preserved a 120-acre parcel called Royal Palms and given it to the state.

Ernest Coe, friend of the Everglades Add to Scrapbook

Ernest Coe, friend of the Everglades

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, circa 1920's Add to Scrapbook

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, circa 1920's

When Ernest Coe, a landscape architect and new arrival to Miami, learned that rare plants and birds were being destroyed, he decided to dedicate his life to the creation of a much larger national park. He was joined in the fight by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist, feminist and environmentalist who had served with the Red Cross in Europe during World War I. Douglas was not much of an outdoor person, but she agreed with Coe that the Everglades' combination of water, wildlife, and plants needed federal protection. She soon became the movement's most powerful public voice.

Since it lacked the distinguishing features of dramatic landscapes, many doubted whether the Everglades was even worthy of being a national park. "A swamp is a swamp," scoffed respected zoologist William T. Hornaday. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. agreed that the scenery was "monotonous," but he was struck by the "unforgettable sight" of thousands of birds returning at dusk from their feeding grounds.

Skeptical National Park Service leaders, including Horace Albright, made a series of official trips to evaluate the Everglades. So did George Melendez Wright, director of the service's new wildlife division. When Wright and his party viewed the Everglades from the Goodyear blimp, they were astonished by the wildlife they saw below and urged that the Everglades be established as a national park before the wildlife became extinct.

A bill to create Everglades National Park passed Congress by the narrowest of margins in 1934. For the first time in history, a park had been created solely for the preservation of animals and plants, and the environment that sustains them.

Grand Canyon National Park

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Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

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THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

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