The Everglades is known as the “River of Grass.”
And the start of the winding waterway happens just outside Orlando with the Kissimmee River.
“When I say the word ‘Everglades,’ people think Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and maybe Naples, or Fort Myers,” said Sam Haught, the co-owner and co-founder of Wild Florida Airboats. “But the Everglades water system spreads all the way up through Orlando.”
As the headwaters of the Everglades, Central Florida’s waterways supply a large amount of the water that flows south into the heart of the Everglades National Park.
If you’ve been on an airboat ride in the Everglades National Park in South Florida, you’ll distinctly remember endless miles of flowing sawgrass prairies.
Here in Central Florida, 250 miles to the north, we have oak canopies covered with Spanish moss and bald eagles flying between our chains of freshwater lakes, rivers, and swamps.
Even though the swamp is in the same state, the diversity of the ecosystem can seem a world apart. In addition to the diversity of waterways, you’ll find more land animals like turkeys, coyotes, wild hogs, cows, and deer.
But it wasn’t always easy to enjoy the natural beauty of our surroundings.
At the turn of the 20th century, land spectators purchased thousands of acres of the Everglades in South Florida with the intention of selling the land to investors.
The idea was that the Everglades would be drained and the land would be turned into fertile farmland. With the land underwater at the time of purchase, one investor reportedly said, “I have bought land by the acre, and I have bought land by the foot; but, by God, I have never before bought land by the gallon.”
The plans to drain the Everglades did not work out, with a number of land companies and speculators getting sued by the buyers.
Plans to alter the Everglades didn’t end there.
“We just went to war with the swamps back 70 years ago, and did everything we could to reduce them. People felt like they were useless, God-forsaken places,” Sam said. “Mosquito, alligator, snake infested, horrible places.”
In the 1960s, the Kissimmee River was transformed from a winding river into a 56-mile-long canal with an additional six water control structures to manage flooding in the Central Florida basin. This dramatically changed the flow of the water and impacted wildlife.
An estimated 90 percent of the waterfowl that once lived in the wetlands disappeared.
In 1999, construction began on the Kissimmee River Restoration Project by backfilling eight miles of the man-made canal. Three phases of the plan are complete, and 24 miles of natural water flow have been re-established.
The goal of the project is to return 44 miles of the river closer to its original meandering path by 2020 and to restore an estimated 40 square miles of the floodplain ecosystem.
Local groups, organizations and businesses continue to help restore and protect Central Florida’s natural wildlife.
“We’re doing our best at Wild Florida to educate visitors about this fragile system while showing them why it’s worth protecting,” Sam said.