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The Everglades is a unique and delicate ecosystem made up of swamps and marshes at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The marshy, low-lying savanna area is the largest subtropical wilderness in the continental U.S. The Everglades cover some 10,000 km² (4,000 sq miles) of wilderness, which is characterized by brackish water, saw-grass, palms, pine and mangrove and cypress swamps. The ground is formed by solidly packed black muck, a result from millions of years of vegetation decay in near-stagnant water. Most vegetation grows in the form of hardwood hammocks, which are island-like masses of vegetation. The Everglades extend from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay.

The marshes are home to a wide variety of animals, including alligators, bottle-nosed dolphins, crocodiles, snowy egrets, bald eagles and ospreys. Many of the animal species, such as the Florida panther, American crocodile and manatee, are endangered. The Everglades receives an annual average rainfall of more than 152 cm (60 inches), most of which falls in the summer. Big Cypress Swamp, to the northwest and Lake Okeechobee are the chief sources of its water.

Colonial expeditions in the 1500's found Native Americans living in the Everglades. In the late 1830's, the Everglades was the scene of military operations against these native Seminole. Large tracts of land were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to use the Everglades for agriculture. The entire area was considered rich in agricultural potential, but only lands immediately bordering Lake Okeechobee were farmed. Winter vegetables and sugarcane are now the main crops and some cattle are raised.

Low limestone rises rim Lake Okeechobee, acting as a natural retaining wall. In the 1920's, a ring dike was constructed around Lake Okeechobee to prevent hurricanes from blowing water out of the lake. Following the 1947 hurricanes, massive additional flood control projects were undertaken. These projects, land development and roadbuilding, especially the Tamiami Trail, or U.S. 41, have disrupted the shallow, 100 km (60 miles) wide 'River of Grass' that used to 'flow' across the Everglades. As a result, seasonal rhythms were altered and water was channeled to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of that, water shortages were created and plant and animal life have been damaged. The shortage of water has caused increased salinity in Florida Bay to the south. The Everglades is also under threat from pollution.

In 1939, great fires that were abetted by over-drainage destroyed large parts of the Everglades. Thorough studies of the Everglades were undertaken and the conclusion was that most of the southern part of the area was unfit for cultivation. Both Florida and the federal government, the former in 1994 and the latter in 1996, have launched long-term reclamation projects that are aimed at removing levees, re-flooding drained swampland and otherwise 're-plumbing' the Everglades. Legislation to enable the multibillion-dollar project, whose cost would be split between the state and the U.S. government, was passed by Congress in 2000.

The southwestern part of Florida is included in Everglades National Park and Expansion. The national park measures 610,761 hectares (1,508,580 acres) and was established in 1947. In 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve and Addition were established. That park adjoins it to the north.

You can visit the Everglades for just an afternoon, but it is also possible to make canoe trips around the 10,000 Islands in the area and along the Wilderness Waterway. There are numerous points of entry to the park, where you will find visitors centers that provide maps, camping permits and information from rangers. Camping permits are free, but they are required for overnight stays.

The easiest and cheapest way to get to the region is by car. The Everglades is only a two-hours drive from Miami for example. If you insist on using public transportation, remember that Greyhound only serves the city of Naples, which is about 40 km (25 miles) north of the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

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