Florida's Corkscrew swamp, home to rare cypress forest, grapples with dropping water levels
My nature-loving heart became a little obsessed with bald cypress trees after reading this piece in National Geographic about how sea-level rise is killing scores of them, leaving behind clumps of ashen, leafless trunks known as ghost forests.
- Peppered throughout the article were mentions of Florida's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Audubon-owned preserve northeast of Naples contains one of the last untouched bald cypress forests in the U.S.
Driving the news: I visited the swamp, to pay my respects to our branched ancestors and to find out if and to what extent human-driven changes are impacting it.
The intrigue: Corkscrew's water supply comes from rainfall, and it's high enough above sea level that saltwater intrusion isn't an urgent concern, director of conservation Shawn Clem told Axios.
- But a canal system to protect neighboring communities from flooding is draining the swamp too quickly.
Why it matters: The lower water levels pose a higher wildfire risk to the swamp and surrounding houses, Clem said. The conditions have also prevented wood stork nesting in a habitat that was once one of the largest nesting sites in the U.S.
Plus: With climate change threatening cypress trees across the Southeast, protecting and understanding the remaining forests like Corkscrew takes on new importance.
What we saw: During a 2.25-mile tour through the forest, we spotted nine species of orchids, three types of ferns and towering trees up to 600 years old, their knobby knees jutting from the sweet-tea-colored water.
The big picture: Bald cypresses are among the oldest trees in the world, with some estimated at thousands of years old. Corkscrew is older than its trees let on. A layer of ash in the soil suggests a wildfire many years ago reset the forest.
Flashback: Protection of the wetland dates to the early 1900s, when a warden lived on the property to protect wading birds from hunters hoping to harvest their feathers, said director of public programs Sally Stein, who led the walking tour.
- Later, loggers chopping down pine and cypress trees began to creep north from the Fakahatchee area, which is now a state park east of Marco Island.
- With the help of locals who wanted to maintain their natural surroundings, Audubon brokered a deal with logging companies to buy the land for the price of the timber. The organization took over in 1954 when Naples was still a sleepy enclave.
State of play: Audubon began buying the land that is now Corkscrew in 1954. The sanctuary now covers more than 13,000 acres and boasts a wildly diverse ecosystem of native plants, including the rare ghost orchid, which wildlife advocates are urging the federal government to protect as an endangered species.
- The sanctuary is also home to several animals deemed endangered or threatened, including the roseate spoonbill, Florida panther and gopher tortoise.
Zoom in: In the early 2000s, a sharp decline in wood stork nesting sparked Clem's inquiry into the wetland's water levels, drawing on historical records kept since Audubon's takeover of the property.
- During dry seasons (winter and spring) before that point, the swamp would dry down once every five years for a few days, Clem said. These days, those dry conditions happen almost every year for several months at a time.
What they found: A hydrology study conducted in 2020 pointed to the flood-control canal system downstream from the swamp as the main factor.
- The group is working with the South Florida Water Management District on engineering solutions to restore the water levels.
What they're saying: "We've saved Corkscrew from poachers, we've saved Corkscrew from logging. Now we're trying to save Corkscrew from all of these negative things that overdrying can cause," Clem said.
- The sanctuary is "this remnant of what this whole region looked like prior to development. It carries a history … of this land and of this ecosystem that you couldn't reproduce in any other way."
Of note: Clem encouraged folks to visit the wetland to truly understand its value. The park is open daily and costs $17 for adults, $6 for children 6-14 and is free for kids under 6. It also offers programming such as the guided tour I went on. Binoculars are available to rent for $3.50.
My thought bubble: My tour group spent four hours walking just a couple miles, totally enchanted by the water ferns that spread out like a lush, green carpet.
- And the anhinga with its tail feathers spread like a fan, just a slice of the wading birds that migrate through the swamp in the dry season.
- And the blooming prairie of southeastern sunflowers.
- And the entire ecosystems of resurrection ferns and bromeliads growing on the mighty cypress limbs.
- And the many orchids, none of them blooming this time of year but giving us all the more reason to return again and again.
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