OCHOPEE, Fla. — More than 500 people gathered at the Big Cypress National Preserve Dec. 5 to celebrate the history and culture of the Everglades during the Swamp Heritage Festival in Ochopee, about 35 miles east of Naples.
The fifth annual event featured nearly two dozen organizations dedicated to safeguarding the 1,125-square-mile preserve and educating the public about its history.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum community outreach specialist Reinaldo Becerra manned a table overflowing with historical Seminole artifacts and relayed the history of the Seminole Tribe to festival attendees during a presentation in the visitor center auditorium.
Tribal member Pedro Zepeda set up under a lean-to where he carved toy canoes and displayed other traditional Seminole objects, including bow and arrows, stickball sticks, ladles and cooking utensils, as he talked to attendees about the Tribe’s place in the history of the Everglades.
“It’s a laid back, local event and I like practicing the traditional ways,” said Zepeda, who attended for the third year. “I want people to learn about the local history and culture, not just Seminole but the old-timers, too.”
Speakers, music, food, crafts and a Miccosukee alligator wrestling demonstration rounded out the festival.
According to the National Park Service, the history of humanity in the Everglades dates back thousands of years. Native Americans, explorers and settlers have lived in the region for years, but once the Tamiami Trail opened in 1928, people gained easy access to the Everglades. The preserve was created in 1974 as a result of environmentalists’ activism to protect and preserve the land.
Results of the Tamiami Trail included development, agriculture and extensive logging for durable and rot-resistant cypress trees in the 1940s and 1950s. The threat to the survival of the ecosystem, the primary source of fresh water in South Florida, led environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas to publish in 1947 “The Everglades: River of Grass” which called for Everglades preservation.
That same year, Everglades National Park was established but without the land that comprises the preserve.
Environmentalists fought for the establishment of the Big Cypress National Preserve after the 1968 groundbreaking of a jetport – slated to be the largest international airport in the world. Its designation as the country’s first national preserve was finalized in 1974 during the administration of President Gerald Ford, the only U.S. president to have worked as a National Park Service ranger.
Today, more than 1 million people visit the preserve annually.
The festival included several speeches, some of which took place in the auditorium and others around a campfire. Topics included growing up in the Everglades, the mission and activities of the preserve, swamp buggy races and artifacts found in the preserve dating from the Seminole Wars. Speakers included Becerra, author Carl Hiaasen, artist Patricia Cummins and photographer Clyde Butcher.
Becerra told the audience about his first encounter with Chairman James E. Billie, which occurred when he was hunting on the Big Cypress Reservation. An expert falconer, Becerra used his raptor to hunt wild duck, which Chairman Billie had never seen. He offered Becerra a job. Five years later he took the Chairman up on his offer and has worked for the Tribe ever since.
“There is nothing like the Everglades; in the same day you can see birds, bears, panthers and alligators,” Becerra said. “The Tribe is still fighting for the Everglades; not with weapons but with lawyers in court.”
The proposed Florida Power & Light plant near Big Cypress Reservation will destroy about 3,000 acres of panther habitat, Becerra said.
“Roads are the biggest problem for panthers and the traffic will be a disaster,” he said. “Seminoles believe in having open, undeveloped land and to protect it for the next generation.”
Hiaasen said his life inspires his work, in which he incorporates elements of natural Florida and eccentric characters. Born and raised in South Florida, Hiaasen, 62, is an environmentalist who regrets the effect of development in the area.
“My generation sold this place out,” he said. “The environmentalist movement is not made of Florida natives. The most energetic people fighting to save this place came from somewhere else.”
Hiaasen also discussed the effect of politics on the environment, specifically the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, Amendment 1, which voters approved in 2014 with 75 percent of the vote. The amendment was designed to allocate 33 percent of all state real estate document excise taxes to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which is tasked to acquire and protect wilderness, wildlife habitat, water resources and park land.
“More than 4 million people voted for it, more than for any other state vote,” Hiaasen said.
Environmental groups claim the Florida Legislature misappropriated $300 million of Amendment 1 funds and in June filed a lawsuit to recoup the money.
Butcher has been shooting photos of the Everglades since 1980, when he moved to Southwest Florida from California. His photos have taken him deep into the swamp, but he said he often finds images close to home, even in the parking lot of his Big Cypress gallery.
“Nature is chaos; the trick is to make sense of it,” he said. “The Everglades is the only place like it in the world. I call it a living, growing, creepy crawly place and I love it.”