Big Oil and Big Mosquitoes: The Everglades

There is nothing quite like the feel of Calamine lotion.  Sure, it is runny and can make quite a mess, and you probably should avoid getting it on your mother’s carpet; but the cooling sensation of this Pepto Bismol like pink fluid as it rubs into your skin catalyzing almost instantaneous relief from poison ivy and mosquito bites is one of life’s precious, get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars, moments.                                   

Those dreaded mosquito bites: the bane of my existence.  Spring time has arrived in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and that means those unquenchable insects will soon be turning their thirst for blood upon my epidermis in only a few short weeks.  Between the marshes of the bay and Assateague Island, I am no more than a cheap buffet, dined on by swarms of mosquitoes in a voracious manner and left itchy, disgusted, and thinking “Did they just eat the whole thing (me)?”

Just another day in the office.

A Cattle Egret in the Everglades

A Cattle Egret in the Everglades

As I write this I find myself pausing to scratch myself from the mounds of red mosquito bites on my arms and legs.  Before you cringe and sweat in panic (if you are like me of course), I did not receive these bites (yet) from the Bay; I just returned from the Florida Everglades.

How I love the River of Grass.  It is where the temperate and tropical conjoin; where thousands of colorful wading birds and rare animals make their home; where kayaking under jungle-like and mangrove covered canopies is the norm.  Oh, and mosquitoes; hordes and hordes of mosquitoes.  Let’s forget about that for the time being.  While the majority of my conservation photography is based on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, I am dedicated to wilderness.  Regardless of longitude and latitude, mountain or ocean, I am a wilderness photographer.  Whether it involves hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, or sloshing through swamp, I participate in wilderness.  The Everglades was one of the first wilderness areas I became very connected to, originally due to my zeal for its biodiversity, and it has left a permanent likeness in me that fostered the appreciation of other wild lands as well.  Visions of Crocodiles, Gumbo-Limbo Trees, Manatees, and the smell of brackish water take over my psychological senses when a single thought of the Everglades crosses my mind.   

South Florida is in my blood.  My father is from Ft. Lauderdale.  My fiancée and her family are in Miami.  In fact I spend more time in South Florida than I do in many parts of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  To experience the stillness of the Everglades is to get back to the basics of life.  It is slow, tranquil, and mysterious with a touch of danger.  While very close to the urban sprawl of South Florida, it is worlds away and incredibly wild.   The Everglades is more than a vacation home for me; it is home. 

The Everglades continue to hold from a precarious thread in regards to restoring it as a healthy ecosystem.  However we are now in the midst, after many years of political turmoil and appropriations not being utilized, of the most expensive and comprehensive ecosystem restoration in history.  The one mile bridge is an example of the long road to progress.  The historical southern flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay was forever altered by drainage canals that diverted the natural flow of water into cities and for agriculture.  Additionally, the construction of the famed Tamiami Trail became a dam, blocking water flow into the Everglades.  In March of 2013 construction was completed that raised a one mile portion of the road, allowing freshwater to again flow naturally into the Everglades, and connecting sloughs that are a critical habitat to many key species.  An additional 5.5 miles of bridging the trail is currently in the works to continue with the restoration efforts.

The One Mile Bridge of the Tamiami Trail.  Freshwater now flows naturally through the Everglades under this bridge.

The One Mile Bridge of the Tamiami Trail.  Freshwater now flows naturally through the Everglades under this bridge.

How I love the view of progress.  So you can imagine my discomfort when it was announced that a Texas oil company was seeking a permit to explore drilling in the Big Cypress National Preserve, also known as the “Western Everglades.”  While the National Park Service owns the land, the mineral rights underground are owned by a powerful private company that leases exploration underground to oil companies.  More disturbing than that is this same oil company was recently fined $25,000 for violating its state permit, also in Florida, while drilling a well near a wildlife sanctuary.  If an exploration permit is approved, habitat destruction is inevitable as new roads must be built along with the digging of thousands of holes for seismic sampling.  Again, this is just to explore the possibility of drilling.  Other wells already exist within the Big Cypress; however a second company is also in the exploratory phases of constructing a new well that would be placed in close proximity to the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge and the Big Cypress are the largest intact habitat that exists for the rare Florida Panther.  Other species of interest include the endangered Snail Kite, Wood Storks, and a host of rare plants.    

The Everglades ecosystem is a very sensitive habitat.  The largest culprit of Panther mortality is from collisions with automobiles.  It is estimated that there are only between 100-160 panthers left in Florida, an improvement from thirty just a few decades ago.  Twelve have already been killed by car in 2014, on record to surpass the 17 deaths from collisions in 2013.  More road construction through a "protected" habitat may hinder this species ability to recover.  Unfortunately most people do not realize that just because land is designated as a refuge, National Preserve, or National Park that they are not completely protected because borders, whether from outside or underground, matter. 

Everglades’ restoration is underway and this great wetland of North America is an incredible place to behold.  Short term gains in energy should not permanently scar a land that is in need of so much help, though this is not the case.  The success of Everglades restoration is important for other areas as well, as it is being used as a model with (gasp) the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

For a healthy Everglades I’ll be happy to deal with every mosquito that it can throw at me if it can remain protected for all of its biodiversity.  Yes, even the mosquitoes……………….

An endangered Snail Kite hunts Apple Snails in the expansive Big Cypress National Preserve, near the location of the surveying.  

An endangered Snail Kite hunts Apple Snails in the expansive Big Cypress National Preserve, near the location of the surveying.