Evidence Deadly As Judge Tours Everglades Water

Herald staff writer
Oct. 27, 1979

Nature's opening argument' was stark and awful. A dead deer, Its flesh cleaned away by the buzzards, lay on a little knoll rising out of the sawgrass flats.

Most of the foliage had been, eaten way from the tiny Everglades island, surrounded by black, water, 20 Inches deep. The yearling had finally starved.

Palm Beach Circuit Judge Thomas Sholts waded through the water around, the knoll and then on shore to the pile of fur and bones. The judge spent five hours in the Broward Everglades Friday to help him decide the validity of a lawsuit by two' conservation groups that want him to order the South Florida Water Management to lower the Everglades water level.

Judge Sholts had already read the briefs and heard the legal arguments. He wanted to see for himself.

A ROARING nine airboat, contingent. of lawyers, reporters, state game and fish officers and members of, various conservation groups followed the judge through, the sawgrass expanses on either side of Alligator Alley.

Will Mersch of the Dade County Half-Track Conservation Club had sat through two days of courtroom hearings before following the judge Into the Everglades on his airboat.

"Seems like they make It a lot more complicated than they need to in court," he said. "All they needed to do was come out here, stick a measure down and see how deep It is."

But Mersch added, "This is something that's well worth all the time and aggravation.

"Hell, if we don't stop it now, We won't have nothing next year."

The hunters and conservationists are opposed by the Sugar Cane League, which has argued that the high water level is needed for storage. The league claims the threat to wildlife' has been exaggerated.

FRIDAY was the judge's first venture into the Everglades outside one of the automobiles gleaming in the distance on Alligator Alley. It was his first ride on an airboat.

The judge said the trip brought an air of reality to the evidence he had heard in the weeks before. But Thomas wouldn't say whether it swayed him one way or another. The decision would come later.

Mersch, though, was sure that the evidence was overwhelming. "It's been getting worse," he said. I'ts not just the deer, either. Usually, when we ride through here the whole sky is filled with egrets.

Lt. Tom Shirley of the Florida Fresh Water and Game Commission stood near the dead' deer and said "We saw about 15 dead deer yesterday.

"But it isn't just deer that are affected," he said "We're speaking of deer and raccoons and possums even alligators."

SHIRLEY SAID the water depth was 19 to 30 inches. "Anytime you have 15 Inches or above, you have a Problem, he said."

Wayne Lawson, a member of the Broward  County Half-Track Association board of directors, pointed to a black buzzards circling in the distance. "That's the only thing that benefits from this high water."

Gradually, the reporters and lawyers, following Sholts' airboat thinned until there was only one other boat. When the engines were cut on the two loud, prop-driven boats it became very still.

AWAY FROM the highway Sholts looked across a vast expanse of tall grass that seemed more like an endless field somewhere in the Midwest. It seemed surely dry, until Sholts and Major Lou Gainey, the district director of the fish and game commission, stepped off their airboat into two-feet of black water.

Nature's final argument came late in the trek, a few miles south of Alligator Alley, as the two airboats made one last sweep before heading in.

Two frightened brown deer leaped out of a clump of melaleuca trees and bounded through the grass. The deer churned the black water white as they struggled across the glades.

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