Justin Sornsin is an Environmental Studies and Political Science double major at Knox College. He is an avid naturalist and hiker who has traveled extensively in the United States and who focuses on environmentalism and sustainable living practices in his scholarship. He is currently doing an internship in the Everglades, one our nation’s most precious resources.

Travels in the Swamp

(From the brackish backwaters of Big Cypress Swamp.)

by Justin Sornsin

It’s about 6:30 PM in southern Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve (www.nps.gov/bicy) the northwest watershed area that drains into the historic Everglades. As the sun sets quietly off the Gulf of Mexico, the moon slowly rises to a climatic chorus of birdcalls, insect buzzes, and alligator bellows. The swamps, prairies, and hardwood hammocks become alive with both movement and sound as dusk approaches with darkness.

Strangely enough, this has been my ritual for quite some time now. Sitting just outside my living quarters–a tent, mind you–night after night, watching…listening…experiencing all the natural wonders around me. Since January 6th of this year I have been living within this expansive forest preserve doing an ecological restoration internship with the National Park Service through the Student Conservation Association (www.sca-inc.org). I spend part of the time doing vegetation cover research with the resource management division to determine the effects of off-road vehicles (a.k.a., ORVs, or swamp buggies, airboats, ATVs, etc.) on the various habitats of the area and the remainder with the law enforcement officers (i.e., park rangers) dismantling illegal backcountry hunting camps and doing true eco-restoration labor.

In 1974, Congress set aside 50% of the Big Cypress Swamp region as a national preserve to protect numerous endangered native species (including the elusive Florida panther) and to preserve the ecosystem stability of southern Florida (essentially to prevent development from Miami to Tampa Bay). This allotment was expanded in 1988 and now encompasses nearly 720,000 acres (or 2400 square miles) of cypress strands, wet and dry prairies, hardwood hammocks, and estuarine mangroves. The region does not have national park status because traditional uses (e.g., hunting, fishing, cattle grazing, ORV trails, and oil and gas exploration) and certain landholdings are still allowed. Much controversy still surrounds Big Cypress (named for the expansive region it constitutes) as land developers, traditional use supporters, and environmentalists still clash over where the future of Big Cypress is headed. Recently the NPS approved an initial plan by the Collier Resources Co. to explore another 41 square miles of the preserve for oil exploration. The plan includes the dynamiting of 14,700 holes and drilling an 11,800-foot well. Over 110 million barrels have already been extracted from the preserve; about 2200 barrels of crude oil daily. Portions of one old oil field that transects the northeastern quadrant show signs of environmental collapse including a barren, abandoned oil pad, reduced vegetative cover with little biodiversity, and little, if any, animal life in the area.

Another source of constant political unrest surrounding Big Cypress involves the landholdings of the Miccosoukee and Seminole reservations. The two tribes have been appealing to the higher courts for decades for expanded territory within the preserve and exclusive land use rights to what they claim is their inherent tribal property. While traveling in the backcountry, if we were to come to tribal burial mounds or across Native American artifacts, we are required by the NPS to leave the area immediately without taking coordinates or pictures because of the threat to the stability and sacredness of what resides there. Archeological artifact hunters and those who disagree with the tribal rights could possibly tarnish or destroy symbols of these traditional native cultures and heritages if the specific locations were exposed to the public in any way. Although there is, and will continue to be, a constant ebb and flow of policies and clashes over the area surrounding Big Cypress National Preserve, what will surely survive is the sheer beauty and bounty of species and aesthetics that abound within it.

On many backcountry excursions, I spend my lunch breaks simply gazing in awe at what surrounds me. The territory is an interesting mesh of clashing dichotomies. It is both majestic and scary. Rugged, yet forgiving. Open, yet impassable and opposing to the thin-skinned traveler. According to law this preserve is protected, but it is seemingly on the verge of opening its front door to developers and users which can and will, clear cut the ancient cypress trees, thrash the prairies with their ORVs (which, coincidentally, come equipped with gunracks and tires the size of a VW Bug), as well as officials who would drain this ecologically critical watershed to lessen the load on local water systems to supply the ever-expanding retirement populations of Naples, Miami and other southern Florida powerhouse cities.

Big Cypress is awash in immense environmental wonders, but sits amidst a steadily growing population biting at the bit to "use" the land for its economic value without giving two winks about the devastation it would cause to the stability and serenity of the ecosystem. This preserve is magnificent in every way shape and form, yet it is as threatened as a park can be.

These are the thoughts that creep into my head as I lay down at night. I am experiencing things here I never dreamed of and seeing unimaginable sights, but I constantly wonder how long these ecological wonders will remain intact. Only time will tell, but at least, I can leave this internship in June with a clear conscience knowing that for a brief moment in geologic time, I helped preserve and protect a little-known ecological treasure from the thwarts of modernity and ecological devastation.

Perhaps what is most fascinating and wonderful about my internship is that there’s still 3 months left. I never would have thought that I could be sitting in class listening to "boring," "drab" lectures by professors in west-central Illinois one day and traveling around the swamplands of Florida on a swamp buggy, ATV, or helicopter the next. This great oasis has provided me so much: views of political/environmental unfoldings over land use practices and up-close encounters with poisonous snakes, alligators, lizards, birds, and even a 300+ lb. wild boar; I distinctly remember waking up one Saturday afternoon to the tune of a 6-foot Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake sunning himself lazily outside my neighbor’s tent. I’ve even experienced local "flavor and culture" in odd little Everglades City–an eerily strange mix of tourism-driven services and scantily-clad fishermen with a distinct taste for cold, cheap beer and no sense of personal hygiene. I sure as heck can’t expect to see such things in the Midwest!

I guess my point is that we live in an amazing time in human history. People can now live in China, work over the internet in the U.S., and travel to the opposite end of the world in a matter of hours. We can literally go and experience anywhere and anyone at any time! After spending a few months here, I encourage anyone who ever looked at a picture from somewhere far away and had a yearning to explore to go and do just that. Take to the skies, drive the roads…be free. Live life. Opportunities abound from everywhere. Take one and begin your own travels. Remember, in a few years, each of my college mates will be pressured to take diploma in hand and join corporate America and follow a daily regime of monotonous working life. We are all young, able, and free. Choose life, choose freedom, choose a career. But for crying our loud, get out and see the world to which we are a part of. Remember, we are devastating natural environments at an alarming rate through greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and development (all driven by a steadily increasing global population). We are running out of time to see and protect areas such as Big Cypress. Today it is here…tomorrow…well, that could be another story entirely. Keep fueling your desires and grab hold of your life. Pleasant travels my friends.