As we glided through the slough and ridge ecosystem of the vast Everglades “sea of grass,” the stunning beauty of the landscape captivated my senses. The students and faculty of the Restoration Science, Policy and Leadership in south Florida headed towards an island retreat in the heart of the Miccosukee tribal lands to learn about hydrology research and community engagement. The DEL program teaches us to examine environmental problems through multiple lenses, and today’s experience was a unique opportunity.
Peter Osceola Jr., Miccosukee Tribal Leader, warmly greeted us and cited a lack of leadership impeding Everglades restoration; he expressed our conversation would best take place away from Tamiami Trail Road at a traditional island retreat. While known as Water Management Area #3, this technical name surely did not express the stunning beauty and diversity of Miccosukee lands and waters. At first encounter the air boat ride exhilarated, yet as we stepped off the boat towards the Chickee Huts I knew we were in a special place.
Our meeting took place on a forested island hammock where families gathered, one of dozens scattered through their jurisdictional lands. James Erskine, Acting Director of Water Resources, shared the leadership story of the tribe in establishing the 10 ppb limit for phosphorus in waters flowing through the Everglades. While not yet attained, their vision for water quality stands vanguard for progress in restoration. The Miccosukee continue to work with multiple agencies and organizations to push for progress.
Michael Frank, Tribal Committee Member and Advocate, shared his personal story and interpreted the importance of hydrology to the cultural traditions and values of the tribe. The Miccosukee are descendants of Seminole Indians who battled to remain connected to this place when the federal government pushed most tribes west. These forested islands hold great cultural significance through hunting, utilizing plants for food and medicine, corn cultivation, fishing practices – collectively known as “Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”
When excess water floods the system, island hummocks submerge affecting plant and animal diversity. Islands literally disappear, and their cultural use with it. Tribal members monitor island water levels through a community engagement program begun thirty years ago, the original citizen science. He shared that ecosystem restoration is necessary to carry-on their culture traditions inextricably linked to the lands and waters of the Everglades.
Our meeting covered research, water pollution, tribal community engagement efforts, hydrological restoration, invasive species, cultural traditions, policy and administration. I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed with the experience, yet so very grateful. The afternoon reinforced listening to all stakeholders is a key component of understanding and restoring the Everglades, otherwise solutions are incomplete.