The "willpower and commitment" behind protecting Florida's Everglades

Protecting Florida's Everglades

Our ongoing series, “America the Beautiful,” celebrates 100 years of the National Park Service. In this installment, we take you to the Everglades. The Southern Florida swamp is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor visited the national park to learn about a moment that almost destroyed the natural wonder, how it survived and the threats to its future.

Florida would look a lot different if this never happened. It was a timeless bond over an ancient place, and it proved that a couple committed souls could change the course of history, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor.

“Do people worry about the gators and the snakes?” Glor asked.

“Well, they do for a while,” photographer Clyde Butcher said.

Butcher’s stark prints of American landscapes have made him famous. On a swamp in the Everglades, Butcher showed us why this part of Florida – the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, a river of grass, full of sun and cypress – is so special. 

“It’s a living, breathing organism. This is primeval,” Butcher said. “You get out and this – you lose all touch of reality. That is reality out there. There’s no road. There’s no trails. You just go.”

But this almost wasn’t so. In the mid-1960s, plans were aggressively underway to build the world’s largest airport in South Central Florida – a complex that would have been five times as big as the one in Miami.

One runway was already built, until Joe Browder got involved.

“If they can just drag this thing out for a while, then eventually, they’ll get everything they want out there anyway,” Browder said.

Browder, a former local TV reporter in Miami, hooked up with Nathaniel Reed, a powerful environmental voice in Florida politics.

“You had a chemistry that said, ‘We need to save this area,’” Glor said.

“It’s vital. This is the beginning of the end. If this goes forward… kiss the Keys goodbye, kiss Florida Bay goodbye,” Reed said. “Kiss South Florida goodbye.”

Browder talked about the challenges he and Reed faced during a 2008 interview.

“These were people with not a lot of money who invested in a few hundred acres here or a few thousand acres there. They had enormous visions of wealth pouring into their land if it could only be drained,” Browder said.

Despite a murderous bounty being put on both of their heads, Browder and Reed took the fight all the way to President Nixon’s Oval Office. It was a time, Reed said, when politicians on both sides of the aisle were looking to earn their “green spurs.”

Nixon cancelled the massive jetport project, and its lone runway was limited to training flights.

This September, nearly 50 years after that fight, Browder died after a sudden illness. Last month, we met up with his wife, Louise, on her first trip back since her husband’s passing. It was her first time seeing Nathaniel Reed in years.

“What is it like for you to be here now again?” Glor asked.

“Oh well, it’s beautiful. I feel him everywhere,” said Louise Dunlap, who is an environmentalist. 

“Everybody that I’ve talked to says if Joe Browder weren’t around, South Florida would look completely different,” Glor said.

“It would. He understood the human ecosystem of coalition building the way he understood ecosystems of big cypress in the Everglades,” Dunlap said. “He understood the different roles everybody could play.”

Wading through the Everglades with Clyde Butcher, Glor began to ask, “If Nat and Joe hadn’t been around, what would this...” 

“We’d probably be in Walmart right now. Imagine this being Walmart? Gosh darn,” Butcher said. 

But the fight to save the Everglades didn’t end with the fight over the jetport. Decades of new damage has slowed the natural flow of water from north to south. In 2000, the U.S. Senate – by a vote of 85-1 – passed $7.8 billion to restore the Everglades for the next century. But the status of that project remains murky.

Butcher is pessimistic. He thinks the Everglades could be gone in 50 years. But Nat Reed remains hopeful. 

“You’re in the middle of a totally unique ecosystem that is not found anywhere else on Earth. It’s been butchered, it’s been drained it’s been diked in, it’s been polluted, and it’s still alive,” Reed said. “And we have every opportunity in your lifetime, not mine, but in your lifetime of seeing a highly functioning Everglades system. If the American people say they want it, it’s all doable.”

“Just takes willpower,” Glor said.

“It takes willpower and commitment,” Reed said.

Reversing the existing damage in the Everglades will take time and money – by one estimate, about $3 billion and at least 15 years.