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Born from fire, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is now slowly drying out and a solution is proving elusive

A section of the 2.25-mile boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that leads more than 100,000 visitors a year over a wet meadow and into a stand of bald cypress trees in the distance. Water levels in the swamp have been down during the last several years in a decline the sanctuary's scientists say is due to canals dug for flood control during the last century, homes and businesses built in the greater Corkscrew watershed during the last few decades, and other man-made changes to the climate in and around the swamp. Researchers are not sure the swamp can be saved.
A. Collens
/
WGCU
A section of the 2.25-mile boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that leads more than 100,000 visitors a year over a wet meadow and into a stand of bald cypress trees in the distance. Water levels in the swamp have been down during the last several years in a decline the sanctuary's scientists say is due to canals dug for flood control during the last century, homes and businesses built in the greater Corkscrew watershed during the last few decades, and other man-made changes to the climate in and around the swamp. Researchers are not sure the swamp can be saved.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is slowly drying up due to development and flood control projects that have been redirecting the water flow that is the lifeblood of Audubon Florida's popular environmental attraction in the Western Everglades east of Naples.

"There are no other Everglades in the world."

— the first eight words written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her epic "The Everglades: River of Grass"

There are no other Everglades in the world, and there are no other swamps like Corkscrew in the Everglades.

Audubon Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary contains the largest virgin old-growth bald cypress forest in the world, some trees 28-feet around. The swamp is also home to a super ghost orchid, the largest in the world. Nature’s magician, it blooms and appears to float in the air near the tree it lives on.

Since the 1950s, more than a million people have strolled the 2.25-mile boardwalk above the tropical swamp waters to gander at the grandeur.

Yet in recent years, the boardwalk has too often been a pathway over a swamp with no water, the trek a winding path over mud and dry land.

Corkscrew Swamp is drying out, and a solution to restore the historical flow of water and save one of Southwest Florida’s most beloved environmental attractions is proving elusive.

For decades prior to 2000, Corkscrew's hydrological cycle was in balance. Then changes to the swamp’s water flow became apparent as new subdivisions were built, farms got larger, and a burgeoning population moved in.

Key portions of the swamp run dry almost every year now and stay that way for months; in generations prior, the dryness would come once every five years or so, and a few days later water would refill the swamp.

“The hydrologic shifts, notably the receding water table and shortened wet seasons, pose significant risks,” says Shawn Clem, Audubon Florida’s director of research. “If hydrological conditions in the swamp don’t return to pre-2000 levels the wetlands will die.”

 A depth gauge shown in June was supposed to have water covering the bottom few inches, but the spot under the boardwalk was dry
Renee Wilson Audubon Florida
/
WGCU
A depth gauge shown in June was supposed to have water covering the bottom few inches, but the spot under the boardwalk was dry

Audubon Florida, the South Florida Water Management District and other local, state, and federal entities continue to meet and work on a solution, but so far nothing has been found that would keep the swamp from going dry without harming nearby development or the surrounding environment.

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If a solution is not found in time, wholesale changes to the sanctuary likely could not be undone. Clem said that could happen slowly, over a long period of time ... or very rapidly.

“The thing that is so special about Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is that it is becoming more special every year,” Clem said. “It’s all that’s left. The last remnant of a much larger old-growth, bald cypress ecosystem.

“Will it be saved for future generations, or will it become another ecosystem destroyed by human-caused climate change?”

A swamp is born

The swamp was born from a raging wildfire some 500 years ago, as many were throughout Florida in the days before wildland firefighters. The conflagration was so hot it altered the region’s topography.

 The blaze burned hollows in the brown, peaty soil, warped the landscape, and created furrows for future floods to flow.

 Left behind was an ashen moonscape.

Nature doesn’t kid around when an ecosystem goes rogue and threatens to spread its dysfunction to the surrounding environment. Wildfire or drought, disease or swarm, nature will hit the hard reset. The only question is whether the process takes seconds or centuries.

Whatever was poisoning the ecosystem that is now Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary was no longer. The land was a fresh tableau, in the soil were all the essentials for a healthy rebirth.

In short order, a swamp was born.

 The world-famous super ghost orchid blooming in 2023
R J Wiley
/
WGCU
The world-famous super ghost orchid blooming in 2023

Between then and 1956, Corkscrew’s hydrological cycle settled into a pattern that varied little during the last half of the 1900s.

 Summer rains flood fields on high ground to the northeast and flow southwest into the present-day sanctuary. The hollows — now ponds — fill, flood, and water backs-up over the low-lying ground, getting deeper, keeping the area wet during the dry months.

Below this seasonal lake, water is percolating down to the aquifers. Above, alligators and other flora and fauna are laying claim to dens, nests, and burrows.

'Nature’s cathedral'

Like other sanctuaries, Corkscrew Swamp creates distinctive music for visitors.

Birders from around the globe flock to the sanctuary, a premier destination on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. The ornithophiles are greeted with a chorus that rises with the dawn, becoming richer with persistent melodies as more birds lend their voices in the canopy as mornings unfold.

Male alligators bellow to attract females and to warn off other males. The resonant, low-frequency grunting of a male can be a compelling call in the swamps, signaling the onset of courtship and competition.

Stepping onto the wooden walkway, visitors enter an untamed world without leaving the comforts of sturdy human ingenuity.

Walking safely above the swamp allows everyone to appreciate the pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marsh, hardwood hammocks, and the old-growth bald cypress forest. As the journey through unspoiled nature nears its end, and the crickets and other singing, buzzing and chirping insects have joined in, the swamp offers its postludes, calming, and for some, tapping into the spiritual.

 The 2.25-mile boardwalk over Corkscrew Swamp has to be repaired after every hurricane, most often because a downed tree destroyed part of the elevated walkway
Renee Wilson Audubon Florida
/
WGCU
The 2.25-mile boardwalk over Corkscrew Swamp has to be repaired after every hurricane, most often because a downed tree destroyed part of the elevated walkway

“This is nature's cathedral. I should bow my head when I go in this place,” said William J. Mitsch, who as a graduate student 35 years ago was so inspired by the swamp it helped shape the focus of his lifelong academic pursuits.“They call it Corkscrew Sanctuary as if it is a church,”

Mitsch is now a Florida Gulf Coast University professor emeritus and co-author of “Wetlands,” which many consider to be the premier textbook on wetland science, management, and restoration, now in its sixth printing.

“When I was a graduate student and visited, to me it was just the most spectacular place on the planet,” he said. “I was just blown away.”

Never supposed to happen

The dearth of water is driving away the sanctuary’s once-famed wood stork colony.

Carolina willows, which can invade a swamp, suck it try, and help create a forest instead, are pushing in despite the swamp’s managers pushing back.

Audubon Florida researchers have specified how the flora and fauna in the swamp would cease to exist, and it is clear they would not go gentle into that good night.

Without the wetlands to provide pools containing small fishes or freshwater shrimp, wading birds will start to starve and weaken.

Bobcats, otters, and raccoons will feast on the wood stork colony in the trees. Gators will eat the wading birds still wading until there are none.

The pools of water on which alligators rely will become fewer and, in time, water will drain out and the ponds will get smaller.

Forced into crowded pools of water, the alligators will fight for dominance.

Some of the losers will be chased away, sent packing with nowhere to go.

Others weakened by lack of water, lack of food, and the incessant bullying of the healthier gators will be eaten, cannibalized due to the overwhelming survival instinct.

But the swamp will never heal, will never refill with water. The fauna that have fled will never return, the flora that have died off will be literal history.

Any remaining animals incapable of living outside a swampy environment will perish.

The Carolina willow and other terraformers will move in and morph the wetland into a forest.

It’s happened before, time and again, in wetlands large and small throughout the Florida Everglades.

But it was never supposed to happen at Corkscrew.

'That’s nature'

Scientists have run models and tests to determine the causes and solutions that would have the best outcome for the swamp and its neighbors, but what’s best for the swamp would disrupt nearby homes and business.

 The greater Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary during its better, wetter times
South Florida Water Management District
/
WGCU
The greater Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary during its better, wetter times

To save the swamp and slow down the water, researchers are focusing on a mix of new rules and changes, or alterations, to the landscape:

  • Updating water management rules to prevent new developments in areas that would affect the sanctuary's water flow, and adjusting agricultural practices to reduce runoff into the swamp.
  • Enhancing or creating natural features like wetlands or man-made structures like retention ponds that can hold water longer and release it slowly.
  • Restoring lands around the sanctuary to their natural state, which can help absorb and hold water.
  • Modifying existing water control structures, like canals and levees, to manage water flow more effectively.
  • Implementing stricter rules on water well drilling and usage to ensure groundwater levels support the sanctuary's needs.


The idea is to make sure that the land around the swamp can help support the natural flow of water into the swamp, keeping it healthy and safe from the effects of nearby building and farming.

The restoration of the larger Everglades ecosystem is proving it takes time to plan environmental restorations, find the money, acquire permits, and finally get to the actual work involved. The same hurdles are in place  in the effort to save Corkscrew Swamp. And the clock is ticking.

Perhaps because the land is privately managed and owned, in benefit for the public but by the state and local Audubon societies, things can move faster.

Clem, the director of research, is concerned that time will run out during a three-year planning stage underway, and nature will hit the hard reset button, again.

“One of the theories is that, you know, 500-plus years ago there was a massive wildfire that basically swept through the sanctuary, or what is now the sanctuary, and kind of reset the clock on that ecosystem,” she said. “We're afraid of happening again.

“It’s terrifying,” she said. “But at the same time, that's nature.”

 Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Tom Bayles