Environmentalists have been issuing dire warnings about the deterioration of the Florida Everglades for years, saying these wetlands have to be restored in order to revive fragile ecosystems and increase scarce fresh water supplies. Over half of the Everglades are gone, irreversibly converted to urban or agricultural development.
But this week, in an attempt to save what's left, the state of Florida announced a plan to buy nearly 200,000 acres of former wetlands from a sugar cane producer. Advocates say the plan is the largest restoration project in American history.
Putting the land back into public hands is an important step, says Nick Aumen, an aquatic ecologist at Everglades National Park, but it's a massive project that could take a decade to complete.
The land being purchased is located around the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee, and it's upstream from most of the remaining Everglades. "It gives us more opportunities for restoration than we otherwise would have had," Aumen says.
The Everglades perform a variety of functions essential to the ecosystem, Aumen says. In addition to being the primary habitat of many species, the Everglades work as a giant filter system to provide freshwater and a runoff system that helps to prevent flooding and soil erosion.
Home building, farmland and large numbers of canals that have been constructed since the 1950s have severely damaged the Everglades.