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An unabashed environmentalist and scientist has joined a rapidly growing coalition of residents, farmers and recreational groups in South Florida who are fighting back against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Park Service, as the agencies artificially flood tens of thousands of acres of prime residential and agricultural land in proximity to the Everglades National Park to “provide a crucial habitat for the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.”

As part of the government action, the Corps recently issued condemnation orders to 350 residents and notified several thousand others across the southern end of the Florida peninsula that their properties were to be flooded. The coalition contends that the government agencies managing the Everglades are destroying the “Big Swamp,” along with their private property.

Jan Michael Jacobson, an avowed environmentalist who lives in the Glades, agrees with those opposing the federal government’s policy.


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Jacobson at home in the Glades.

For the last 30 years, Jacobson has lived deep in Florida’s Everglades. He is in touch with the ebb and flow of life in the sweltering swamp, season to season and day by day. Founder and director of The Everglades Institute, his perspective on the enormous marsh is scientific, tied to a fond affection for the teeming fauna and flora that surrounds his home at the Institute. Jacobson is a former board member of the Florida Sierra Club.

“If you don’t love the Glades, you don’t stay there more than a day in the summer.” he says, ignoring a swarm of mosquitoes and biting bugs that literally form a cloud around his head. “As a biologist, I love it because there are more unknowns here than anywhere else in America. I moved here from Miami University with defined academic notions about how the ecosystem of the Glades functioned. For three years, I roamed the swamp just observing and trying to apply my laboratory education to the reality of this ecology.” Jacobson also delved deeply into the ecologic history of mankind’s relationship with the Glades, beginning with the Colusa Indians in about 10,000 B.C.

His findings were the exact opposite of those of the U.S. Park Service. Indeed, Jacobson produced scientific evidence that federal agencies are destroying the Big Swamp by unnaturally flooding it.

He caustically states, “During the past 50 years of Park Service management, if an organism could walk, swim or fly, it left Everglades Park.”

As an example of destructive Park Service management, he relates that the excess water is pushing the Everglades Tree Snail to extinction.


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Jacobson keeps close eyes on rising water.

“Simple,” Jacobson says, “the snails lay their eggs at the base of a tree, and the high water washes the eggs away.” He also notes that alligators are particularly vulnerable to changing water levels. “An alligator lays its eggs just above the water surface, and the quickly rising water levels drown their nests.”

Jacobson continues, “What the Glades needed was not water management but fire management. The Park Service has substituted water management for historic fire management, which had zero cost to the taxpayer and was highly productive. Traditional burning was practiced by the local people, hunters, fishers and a few of the Indians. They burned, as all of North America had been burned for the last 11,000 years. They were following a very long, developed fire-management program. When you burn an area, the new growth will have four to seven times the nutrient value, and the grazers and browsers will come from miles for that. It is more crucial in the Everglades than anywhere else in America because the Glades are a nutrient-deficient habitat. The annual flooding leaches out the nutrients. The natives may not have understood all of this, but they understood that the game that they ate came from miles away to eat the new green stuff. So they burned regularly.”


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Flooding is slowly killing islands of trees in the Everglades.
All photos by Martin Gonzalez.

Jacobson decided he would provide a means to bring students and educators into the “living classroom” of the Glades to learn how the complex ecology worked in real life. He explains, “The concept at the (Everglades) Institute was to bring the student and the educator into the habitat being studied, and bring the classroom learning environment with them. You cannot learn very much or teach very much in the Everglades at the end of a line of students with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a can of bug spray in the other. That was OK a hundred years ago. Now you expect your student to understand some complex taxonomy and ecology and a whole bunch of other things.”

In 1980, Jacobson constructed the Swamp Machine, a double-deck, tracked mobile classroom vehicle with sleeping, cooking and bathroom facilities that hauled a couple of dozen people and lab equipment. It was, in his words, “designed to put substantially less weight on the ground than a human foot on a per-square-inch basis.”

The government, however, shut him down, Jacobson recalls: “It all went well at first and the Park Service was happy to see it. I do not think they liked my message, because the government destroyed my mobile classroom concept. The Park Service decided that even though I had a five-year contract, they would ban the use of the machine.”


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Jacobson with Land Rover.

Undeterred, Jacobson began using Land Rovers to ferry students into the glades. The Park Service shut him down again by banning wheeled vehicles. Next, he obtained a Florida Department of Environmental Quality permit to install observation blinds in a rookery. “Then,” he said, “that was shut down by the Audubon-type lunatic fringe and the U.S. Park Service.”

Jacobson was in the process of erecting geodesic domes to house the students on his private property when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began rewatering the Everglades to protect the habitat of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, a concept known as “single species management.” Today, his land is swamped with no dry land to build the domes.

“I am an ‘inholder’ in U.S. Park Service jargon,” he says, “and like all inholders, they want me out.”

The skeletons of geodesic domes and rusting Land Rovers bear mute testimony to Jacobson’s dream of educating teachers and students. He looks across the drowning landscape with sadness tugging the corners of a faint smile.

“All I wanted to do was teach people how to save this. Now I must watch the federal agencies destroy it and the people who love it.”

Read Jacobson’s explanation of how of radical environmentalists have betrayed their constituency.


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Related columns:

Restoring the Everglades

Trouble brewing in Florida’s swamps



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J. Zane Walley is a spokesman for the Paragon Foundation, Alamogordo, N.M., which made this article possible. The Paragon Foundation is “dedicated to preserving the constitutional principles established by the Founding Fathers.” Citing Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, Paragon notes: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union, a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion.” The Paragon Foundation can also be reached at 1-877-847-3443.

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