EVERGLADES NATIONAL WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, Fla. — Wildlife officers guarding the nation's largest sawgrass marsh fight an endless war with mud, mosquitoes and marauders who use the subtropical wilderness to dispose of tires and corpses.
"It's no man's land out here," said Sgt. John Kirkland, an officer with the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. "You are in a sea of grass. It's hot, dirty. The mosquitoes bite. I wouldn't do anything else. I love it."
The Everglades, covering 5,000 square miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys, contains the largest sawgrass marsh in the world and the remnants of a shallow tropical sea that covered the peninsula before the glaciers.
The Everglades is known for its abundance and variety of life--tiny white-tailed deer, tropical zebra butterflies, tree snails, egrets and alligators all living in a delicate balance with a water flow that leaves their nesting grounds parched in the dry season and flooded in the rainy season.
South Florida's water purification system relies on the natural aquifer that runs under the marsh, and increasingly the patrol officers are finding garbage and debris in regions that could threaten the system.
1.4 Million Acres
Everglades National Park, dedicated by President Truman in 1947 to preserve the natural environment, covers 1.4 million acres at the southern end of the 'Glades, just one-seventh of the total acreage.
But the Everglades is also a place that invites trouble. Kirkland is one of 327 officers patrolling the state, including 55 in the region that includes the Everglades. The officers made 15,399 arrests last year for offenses ranging from fishing without a license to illegal dumping to shooting at endangered bald eagles.
"One minute you're on the turnpike in a traffic jam and the next minute you're in the woods where you might not see anybody all day," Kirkland said.
Wildlife officers are state employees deputized to enforce federal laws. The hours are irregular and there is no routine, with duties ranging from helping U.S. agents intercept drug planes to rescuing lost fishermen.
There are no roads, no signposts. Officers navigate the vast, unmarked turf in airboats by using individual trees as landmarks and by becoming familiar with the "heads"--sporadic limestone islands covered with mallaelucca, cypress, mahogany and gumbo limbo.
The airboats--metal skiffs powered by airplane engines--have mashed down the sawgrass, cutting an occasional trail through the marsh.
At the fringes of the Everglades, rusted skeletons of old cars and old refrigerators, and piles and piles of old tires, greet visitors headed into the marsh.
"Everybody thinks they can go out in the woods and dump things wherever they want," said Kirkland, directing a tour through the tire mounds.
For sport, vandals ignite the black rubber mountains, creating columns of thick, noxious smoke that rise into usually cloudless skies. The fires burn for days, finally exhausting themselves and leaving charred rings from steel-belted radials.
"It's not only unsightly, it's a health hazard. This is right on top of the Biscayne Aquifer. It's the purification system for the drinking water. Look at those tires and you can just think of quarts of oil leaking right into the groundwater. It's amazing we haven't polluted ourselves out of existence," Kirkland said, shaking his head in disgust.
Car thieves also favor the remote marsh for stripping their bounty.
"This is where they dump the bodies, the cocaine cowboys," Kirkland said, pointing to a rusted auto graveyard. "And the suicides. People always go to the woods. The men shoot themselves and the women take pills."
Occasionally a ragtag troop of Cuban-American commandos marches through, training in the Everglades for the day they will retake their homeland from the Communists.
Fishermen and hunters abound, sometimes firing bullets into the air with the exuberance born of many beers. Extra caution is required during the hunting season because "everybody we deal with is armed," Kirkland explained.
The officer's day may include counting fish to make sure that the fisherman has not exceeded the limit or scraping alligator blood from a boat so it can be typed in a laboratory and used as evidence against poachers.
"You really have to be a woodsman. You have to have hunted and fished to really understand your job," Kirkland said.
A network of Everglades dwellers and visitors stands ready to phone the rangers to report poachers, and their vigilance has helped restock the Everglades with alligators. Endangered in the early 1960s, Florida alligators now number an estimated 1 million statewide.
"There are hundreds of alligators here. We must have done our job right. At night you can shine a light and see hundreds of red eyes everywhere," Kirkland said.