Everglades restoration threatens historic sites
First, farming and development robbed the Everglades of its life-giving water flows. Now, making up for those environmental mistakes risks robbing the Everglades of its history.
Multibillion-dollar plans to recreate once-natural water flows to the Everglades involve building massive reservoirs and filter marshes across hundreds of thousands of acres south of Lake Okeechobee.
But saving an environmental treasure threatens to trample sacred ground. Some of the land identified for restoration includes historic sites where South Florida's earliest Native American inhabitants lived and buried their dead.
An infusion of federal money has been a shot in the arm for long-stalled Everglades restoration construction. Now South Florida's tribes and other advocates for preserving historic sites are calling for caution as construction plans spread to more land.
Saving what remains of the Everglades shouldn't mean disturbing what remains of some of the Everglades' earliest human inhabitants, said archaeologist Bob Carr, executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in Davie.
"Our mission is to preserve as many of the sites as possible in South Florida," Carr said. "We are not convinced that destroying them is a necessity of restoration."
There are "serious problems" with the locations of some proposed construction projects, said Fred Dayhoff, a consultant for the Miccosukee Tribe. Also, the pending deal to add at least 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land to Everglades restoration could jeopardize even more historic sites, Dayhoff said.
"We have to figure out how to avoid these sites," said Dayhoff, a retired national park ranger who worked at Everglades National Park. "If someone came along and said, 'We are going to use your [ancestors'] cemetery to store stormwater on,' you would probably get a little excited."
Burial sites, campgrounds and midden mounds — containing archaeological-rich discards of Native American life — are among the evidence of the past that can be found in the path of Everglades restoration.
Many of the sites were living areas or temporary campgrounds for the ancestors of the Tequesta, the name given to Native Americans along the South Florida coast when the Spanish explorers arrived, Carr said.
They often were located on higher ground that through the centuries continued to serve as living areas for the Seminoles and Miccosukee, who followed the Tequesta to South Florida.
Many of the sites have long been registered with the Florida Division of Historical Resources and flagged for protection.
Some of those historic sites are within the more than 40,000 acres of stormwater treatment areas already built. A 1996 report prepared by Carr's firm identified sites threatened by stormwater treatment area construction plans.
Pottery shards and human remains — some from 4,000 years ago — were among the finds that offer a picture of prehistoric life in South Florida. In addition to helping tell the human story, animal and plant remains serve as a "barometer of change" in the environmental record, Carr said.
"It's a rare glimpse into how these ancient people were surviving and living," Carr said.
Three of the historic sites were protected by berms, creating their own island preserves within the stormwater treatment areas.
But preservation isn't always an option, according to the South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration.
One of the stormwater treatment areas now covers a site where human teeth and decorated ceramic pottery shards were found, possibly dating back to 2000 B.C., according to a state archaeological report.
Preservation wasn't an option in that case because of the need to use as much land as possible for water treatment, said Georgia Vince, who coordinates the district's response to dealing with historic sites.
"It's a delicate balance," Vince said. "As we move forward … that will be a large issue. We will run into this again."
When officials determine they can't build around historic sites, they are supposed to "mitigate" for the damage. That can mean erecting a sign explaining the historical significance of the location. Sometimes, remains and artifacts are relocated.
For the stormwater treatment area construction project, mitigation called for more in-depth archaeological study of the affected sites to create a historic record of what was found. That report has not yet been completed.
Two other historic sites that archaeologists identified for protection were supposed to be left outside of the stormwater treatment area, but a follow-up visit after construction showed that they "disappeared," Carr said.
Federal and state laws set standards for how to treat Native American remains and artifacts, but don't necessarily require canceling or altering construction projects.
The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, established new provisions for working with tribes to protect human remains and other "cultural items." It includes penalties for illegal trafficking of those historic items. If a site is to be excavated, the law calls for consulting with tribes and determining if anything found there should be removed or remain.
State Rep. Mark Pafford is calling for more follow-through from state agencies about historic preservation requirements. Everglades restoration planners "have the science" to work around historic sites and the state should make preserving them a higher priority, said Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
"We don't spend a lot of time talking about where we came from," Pafford said.
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