Ã??g the Everglades to its natural health is the goal for hundreds of biologists and hydrologists in south Florida. For the people who live in the glades, working towards that goal is also their way of life. Host Steve Curwood talks with Ted Levin, who met some of the locals of the wetlands, and has a new book called "Liquid Land: A Journey through the Florida Everglades."
CURWOOD: The restoration of the Everglades has lost one of its biggest advocates. William Hoeveler, the U.S. District Judge who has overseen the cleanup for the past 15 years has been removed from the case for talking to reporters. Judge Hoeveler chastised Florida lawmakers for delaying a measure that would force the sugar industry to clean up pollution from its processing plants by 2006. The industry now has an additional 10 years to stop the run-off of phosphorus.
Critics say the delay could further harm wildlife and vegetation. And some folks who live in the Everglades and have their own way of monitoring the health of the wetlands might be the first to know. Author Ted Levin has met some of them and he joins me now to talk about his new book: “Liquid Land: A Journey through the Florida Everglades.” Welcome.
LEVIN: Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: You met a number of great characters in your travels through the marshes. I’m thinking of, one of these is a frog hunter named Russell Yates, who is one of the few, I guess literally, born into the culture of the old Everglades. Tell me about him and about this culture he was born into.
LEVIN: Well, Russell is probably in his early sixties now. Wouldn’t have a whole lot of teeth in his mouth – he only had about four or five seven years ago. He had a short haircut, square shoulders, stood about 5’9”, 5’10”. And he is what’s called a frogger. He is actually the only person in South Florida who makes his entire living travelling at night with a headlamp in his airboat, trying to stick frogs with a gig which is shaped like a little trident that Poseidon holds. And he sells these pig frogs to the seafood markets along the East Coast. He has a buyer that comes regularly to see him. He lives in a school bus and he’s as nomadic as a Navajo shepherd. And where the frogs are running, he moves and travels along with his wife. Some nights he might have 20 or 30 pounds of frogs, another night he might have 150 pounds of frogs.
CURWOOD: Now, tell me about the culture that I gather he grew up in, catching frogs.
LEVIN: Well, his family were living in tents along the side of the road, and almost all of their sustenance came out of the Everglades. And they were pretty itinerant, much like migrant workers. They had airboats and pole boats to move around in the glades. Some of them may have been adept at catching turtles, also for a seafood market. Others may have been trapping, and, certainly, gator hunting, up until the point where it was illegal to gator-hunt, in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
CURWOOD: Now, Russell seems like a pretty rare breed himself but in your book, you observe that he may also be something of a new endangered species. What do you mean by that?
LEVIN: Well, I mean, when I went out with him, we went out in what is now part of Everglades National Park. It’s called the East Everglades. It was bought during the George Bush Senior Administration. It’s 103,000 acres, which expands the park, and at that point, before the land was purchased, it was owned by hundreds, if not thousands of absentee landowners that had bought the land sight unseen. And Russell just went out in the property with his airboat – the land was flooded and they couldn’t imagine anyone building homes out there – and he plied his trade.
And then once the National Park acquired the land, which I’m very happy they did, of course, Russell becomes evicted because you cannot hunt or trap in a National Park. Russell made his living of the glades, and I spent a lot of time with biologists, and they’re all wonderful people, but they had a different view than Russell did. Russell had the view of somebody who depends on the glades for his livelihood. And he was pretty sensitive. That’s why he lived in a school bus and drifted around the glades, and didn’t concentrate too hard on one particular area.
CURWOOD: At one point in your book, Ted, you go crocodile hunting with Frank Mazotti, a University of Florida biologist who monitors population of the American crocodile. Could you read from your book about your time with him, please?
LEVIN: Sure. Colors faded from the western sky. Stars appear, twinkling brushstrokes across the night. Inside Davis Creek, we see that crocodile claw marks have gouged the marl bank – a basking site, but we do not see an animal. Back in Joe Bay, Frank’s spotlight runs the chop, scanning for the red glow of crocodile eyes. As we cruise the coastline, I strain not to miss a thing. Crocodile, Frank mutters. Frank cuts the engine, steps off the boat with alacrity, noose pole in hand and wades towards the reptile as though he were about to cast a plug for a tarpon. My senses gush. He slips the wire noose over the crocodile’s head. The crocodile surges. It leaps, twists, turns, and crashes back into the bay. It leaps again. Frank handles the wild exuberance with aplomb, and lets the reptile play itself out, as though he actually has a tarpon on the line. When the animal finally tires, Frank grabs it. He places one hand behind the head, the other behind the base of the tail, then calmly walks to the boat. “Here, take this.” I hold the crocodile, an unmarked female, six or seven years old, 36 pounds, four and a half feet long, and kitten-calm in my lap. Frank marks her, slicing off the appropriate tail scutes with a hefty knife – number 113. After several minutes, the raw ossified skin the color and texture of marshmallow, oozes tiny drops of blood. Frank releases his trophy. “Say goodbye, sweetheart.” The crocodile flicks her tail and vanishes into black water.
CURWOOD: Now, why was he looking for a crocodile? You know, we think of the Everglades, we think alligator.
LEVIN: Well, it’s the northern extension of the range of the American crocodile, and they are highly endangered. There is, at best, about 400 in south Florida, counting young that are hatching. And their wellbeing will be a testament to the success of Everglades restoration. If the crocodile population begins to improve in the mangroves at the southern end of the state, we will know that the proper amounts of freshwater have been moving through the Everglades into the bays at the proper time of the year.
CURWOOD: By the way, why did he need to take a slice out of that lady crocodile?
LEVIN: He makes a permanent scar on the back, and that way, if he recaptures her he will know that he caught her before, he’ll see how much she’s grown, and, more particularly, he’ll see how much she’s moved.
CURWOOD: What has Frank been able to tell from his studies of crocodile populations so far?
LEVIN: Well, he’s figured out pretty quickly that crocodiles do not do well in high salinity. And the salinity in Florida Bay has been extremely high as recently as the early 1990s. The middle 90s and late 90s were very wet years and that helped to soften the salinity. But the goal for Frank, and for restoration, is to move more fresh water through the Everglades, and be able to have the salinity of Florida Bay well below that of sea level, which is about 36 parts per thousand, salt to water.
CURWOOD: Now, towards the end of your book you have a conversation with a water management scientist who says that the solution for the Everglades is to “add water and stir.” What do you think of that? What do you see as the best solution for the Everglades?
LEVIN: The Everglades themselves have been partitioned into a National Park, a National Wildlife Refuge, an agricultural area, and two water conservation areas. And they have all been disconnected, and they should all be one large flowing system, to the best of the ability of hydrologists. So, I think the best solution for the Everglades would be to eliminate as many canals and levies as possible, without threatening current development. I certainly would put a brake on any more draining. And if that could be all reconnected, eliminating several hundred miles of canals and levies, that would be a huge plus.
CURWOOD: Ted Levin is author of “Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades.” Thanks for taking this time to speak with me today.
LEVIN: It was a pleasure, Steve. Thank you for having me as a guest.
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