The Everglades Handbook

Section 2: Big Cypress Swamp

Photo by Luis G. Falcon

The Big Cypress Swamp

This largely forested region has a greater variety of plant communities than the Everglades. The Big Cypress has natural boundaries with the Everglades to the east and with tidal coastal communities to the southwest, but a less defined border to the west and north, and its watershed includes lands to the north. For this reason, most of the lands northward to the Caloosahatchee River are often included in “The Big Cypress” region.

Like all of southern Florida, the terrain of the Big Cypress Swamp is nearly flat, so that small variations in elevation make large differences to vegetation. Slightly higher than the Everglades, it has a maximum elevation of about 22 feet in the north, sloping almost to sea level in the south over a distance of 35 miles. More than in the Everglades, differences in elevation here are directly related to irregularities in the underlying bedrock, which greatly affect hydrology. The result is a range of plant communities from deep sloughs dotted with open ponds, to cypress swamps, to regions of countless cypress domes, to open marshes, pinelands, and hammocks. Variations in forest cover often make the region appear to have hills, in contrast to the flatness of the Everglades.

Because of its botanical, wildlife, and wilderness values, extensive areas of the Big Cypress region are now protected in the following preserves, listed generally from northwest to southeast (see Figure 7.1):

  • Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
  • Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
  • Picayune Strand State Forest
  • Collier Seminole State Park
  • Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
  • Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
  • Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve
  • Big Cypress National Preserve
  • Everglades National Park

In addition to the conservation lands, two large Native American reservations lie along the northeastern edge of Big Cypress:

  • Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation
  • Miccosukee Indian Reservation

A Note on Big Cypress National Preserve and Friends of the Everglades

By far the largest conservation unit is the 1140-square-mile Big Cypress National Preserve. It was created in 1974, the result of a battle that united a broad spectrum of advocates against landowners pushing for various forms of land development. The catalyst was a 1960s plan by the Dade County Aviation Department to build an “Everglades Jetport” on 39 square miles of wetlands in the eastern Big Cypress. It was to be a reliever airport for Miami International and serve other South Florida population centers with new superhighways and high-speed rail. To avoid rising costs, the aviation department had been secretly purchasing the land for the project. After its public disclosure, I attended a presentation of the plan and heard the director of the aviation department respond to a question about environmental protection with, “Don’t worry, we’ll set aside some land for you guys with the butterfly nets.” I was not alone in my angry reaction to the callous disregard for the superlative wilderness and natural values of the Big Cypress Swamp and neighboring Everglades. The jetport project aligned former adversaries, including hunters, non-hunting conservationists, and the Miccosukee Indians. Under the influence of the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Nathaniel Reed, President Nixon’s domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, Florida’s governor, Reubin Askew, and a key conservationist, Joe Browder, a powerful resistance coalesced, stopping the jetport and protecting the Big Cypress Swamp. The Everglades Coalition, as well as Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Friends of the Everglades, formed out of this controversy. Prior to being stopped, a single jetport runway had been completed in 1970. Now called the Dade–Collier Training and Transition Airport, on the eastern side of the Big Cypress National Preserve north of the Tamiami Trail. With restricted ground access, the runway is used for aircraft training.

Big Cypress Vegetation

Major plant communities include:

  • Hardwood hammocks
  • Pinelands: like islands, usually surrounded by shallow marsh communities. Two types depending on elevation. High — which seldom floods, has upland soils, and has an understory dominated by saw palmetto and cabbage pams. And Low — which have seasonal shallow flooding, hydric soils, and few shrubs
  • Cypress Forest: including domes, cypress strands, and dwarf cypress prairies
  • Mixed Pine and Cypress Forest: variation of cypress swamp that occurs on nearly level, sandy soil where drainage is poor
  • Mixed Swamp Forest: botanically related to the wetland tree islands
  • Marl Prairie: virtually the same as those occurring in the southern and southeastern Everglades
  • Sloughs: equivalent to Everglades pearland wet prairies — dominated by cattail, sawgrass, arrowhead, pickerelweed, fire flag, narrowfruit horned beaksedge, spike rush, and bladderwort, and have seasonal water levels about as deep as the swamp forests

Integrity of the Big Cypress

The have been many alterations to the Big Cypress Swamp that have impacted the natural environment, including timbering of cypress and pine, plant collecting by individuals, hydrologic impacts due to drainage and development, loss of peat soil, change in fire seasonality, oil and gas extraction, and invasive nonidigenous plants and insects. In spite of these impacts, much of the region is still wild.

Finally, there persists a misconception that the Big Cypress Swamp is a rain-driven ecosystem that is disconnected from, and buffered from, the Everglades watershed. As highlighted in this chapter (shown graphically in Figure 21.13, using Figure 1.12 for location references), much of the Big Cypress ecosystem depends on flows from neighboring lands to the north and the Everglades to the east. As such, hydrologic restoration of the Big Cypress is intertwined with Everglades restoration.