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Swamp trip primes students on Everglades restoration

A new five-day immersive course in the School of Law gave students insight into the massive state and federal project.
Students in the Everglades law class participate in a swamp walk through Big Cypress National Preserve in the southwestern part of the Everglades. Photo: Kelly Cox/University of Miami

Students in the Everglades law class participate in a swamp walk through Big Cypress National Preserve in the southwestern part of the Everglades. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Cox

Sam Stephens had been to the Everglades once or twice, but he had never actually set foot in the swamp. 

Yet, as part of the University of Miami’s newest environmental law course, last month Stephens and seven of his classmates meandered through waist-deep water in Big Cypress National Preserve on the second day of class. At one point, a rare barred owl stared down at them from a branch above. 

It was just one highlight of a new five-day short course called Everglades Law that gave students at the School of Law the chance to learn about the River of Grass and its restoration firsthand. 

“I was nervous about it, but it was also my favorite thing we did,” said Stephens, a third-year law student, referring to the swamp walk. “This class was the most time I’ve spent in the Everglades, and it was an incredible experience because we were immersed in the ecosystem while learning about the policies that have affected it for the last 150 years.”

The day before, the group came across a family of river otters while kayaking, said lecturer Kelly Cox, an alumna of the School of Law and the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, who led the course. Although Cox now serves as director of Everglades policy for the National Audubon Society, she has worked on South Florida environmental issues since graduation, so when Jessica Owley, professor of law and director of the Environmental Law Program, envisioned the class, she knew Cox, who also teaches at the Rosenstiel School, would be an ideal instructor. Fortunately, Cox agreed. 

“We have the largest collection of ecosystem restoration projects going on in our backyard, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce students to the dynamics of that, and all the legal nuances that helped get the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) off the ground,” said Cox.

For the pilot course, students lived in cabins on the Seminole Reservation’s Big Cypress RV Resort in Clewiston. Each day, the group learned about different aspects of CERP—a massive, $23.2 billion, 35-year project approved by Congress in 2000 to restore the wildlife and water quality to the Florida Everglades that once existed naturally. The health of the Everglades deteriorated rapidly after the ecosystem was drained to convert the land into agricultural fields in the early 1900s. 

Students spent the first day learning about the unique Everglades ecosystem by kayaking through its mangrove tunnels. Lisa Andrews, park ranger and outreach and education coordinator at Big Cypress National Park, spoke to them about endangered species native to the Everglades, such as the Florida panther, and efforts to get the elusive Ghost orchid listed also. 

Marisa Carrozzo, senior coastal and wildlife manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, explained to students how her organization and other environmental groups are working to create a wildlife corridor in Southwest Florida, called the Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area, to protect the panthers from getting hit by cars, which has killed the majority of them in recent years. 

The class also cruised around Lake Okeechobee, a major water source for the Everglades, and visited water distribution facilities along its southern edge, including the Herbert Hoover Dike. Students spoke with commercial fishermen who work on the lake and toured filtration facilities, reservoirs, and marsh systems operated by the South Florida Water Management District—all working to ensure that the water moving south is safe. 

“Students got to see an active restoration site where they are turning an old sugar cane field into a stormwater treatment area, which is basically a constructed wetland that helps store water at a higher quality before it flows south,” Cox said. “This is just one of the projects of CERP where several agencies are working together.” 

The restoration site intrigued Patrick Roesser, a second-year law student from the Port St. Lucie area. 

“I didn’t know about the marsh filtration system that was set up starting with the Everglades Forever Act, and I found it to be a really interesting and intuitive way to filter out the phosphorus coming from the agricultural zone,” he said. “There’s about 10 tons of phosphorus at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, so these marshes prevent the blue green algae from wreaking havoc in the surrounding waters.” 

They also learned about the two tribes who consider the Everglades home. The class visited the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum to learn about the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and took an airboat ride with Edward Ornstein, a lawyer who represents the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida on environmental issues. Ornstein explained the importance of the Everglades to the Miccosukee on one of its sacred tree islands, and the class even met a tribal elder who told them about the impact of Everglades restoration. 

“I can’t think of another time when I had the opportunity to learn about the laws and to see the impacts firsthand like I did in the Everglades,” Stephens said. “Also, since [Cox] works in the field, taking the course with Kelly was great—her perspective and knowledge of the Everglades was incredible.” 

Third-year law student Delaney Reynolds agreed. 

“Even if you’re not focused on environmental law, I would apply for this class because you learn so much about environment that we are surrounded by, and how impactful rerouting water flow can be to the entirety of the state,” said Reynolds, who is also earning her doctoral degree from the Rosenstiel School. “These concepts also apply to many other classes we have taken in law school.” 

Cox enjoyed the experience, and said she hopes to offer the class next January. 

“It’s really meaningful and important to get law students out in nature to remind them why they are doing this work,” she said. “I hope this class solidifies that commitment for the next generation of legal minds working to protect our environment.” 

Owley said Everglades restoration is a vital lesson for future environmental lawyers. 

“Understanding the many pieces and layers in a complex, thorny, environmental problem is key because it’s hard to find one as complicated as the Everglades, with all of these different stakeholders,” she said. “If students can understand how these come together, then they can translate it to other big, complicated topics.”