Ed Carlson’s favorite tree towers over the boardwalk he helped build through the heart of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, his favorite place on Earth.
It is not the sanctuary’s tallest tree, nor does it boast the widest girth, but Carlson says the old cypress tree has perfect symmetry that is revealed best on a gray day in mid-February when its branches are leafless and no sun or shadows can steal the show.
“You can see that tree as it really looks, and it’s just beautiful,” said Carlson, 63, who last June retired as director of the sanctuary, which is owned and managed by the National Audubon Society.
Carlson transformed the sanctuary into a world-class eco-tourism spot and pioneered a regional preservation push that he hopes will ensure its protection forever. As he steps out of the top job, though, he is worried he leaves it unfinished.
“For Ed, it’s all about the storks,” said artist Nicholas Petrucci, who painted an oversized portrait of Carlson that is part of the “Guardians of the Everglades” exhibit opening today at the sanctuary.
Endangered wood storks are Corkscrew’s calling card, along with the sanctuary’s bald cypress forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The number of wood stork nests has plummeted, however, as development has eaten into unprotected wetlands where the birds go for food beyond the sanctuary boundary.
Petrucci said Carlson made two requests for his portrait: Feature the sleeve patch that Audubon wardens wear and feature a wood stork. It does both.
The head-to-toe portrait also shows Carlson’s toes peeking through a pair of sandals; He vowed to wear shoes and socks as little as possible about 10 years ago to give his feet a break after years of wading through the swamp almost daily in soggy boots. He used to coat his feet in petroleum jelly when he dressed for work.
Advancing the cause
Carlson sees the portrait series featuring Everglades notables — including photographer Clyde Butcher, Naples Gladesman Franklin Adams and renowned Miccosukee Indian leader Buffalo Tiger — as a chance to advance the cause of Everglades preservation that has been his life’s work on the River of Grass’ western edge.
“It’s been a lifelong love affair,” Carlson said.
As a teenager growing up in Miami, Carlson fell in with a group of friends who were crazy about exploring the Everglades, he said.
On a typical Friday night, Carlson’s parents would come home from work and find a note on the door: “Gone to the Glades. See you Sunday night.” He and his friends would blast out of Miami on U.S. 41, heading west toward the Everglades.
They wouldn’t stop, though, until they saw the first cypress trees at a spot on Tamiami Trail known as 40 Mile Bend, where drivers today cross from Everglades National Park and into the Big Cypress National Preserve.
“That was the place we were looking for,” Carlson said.
One day, they ventured up State Road 29 to Immokalee Road and saw a sign pointing the way to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Carlson remembers thinking: “What’s this?”
He was about to find a calling.
The group walked into the sancutary, barefoot and dressed in camouflage, and met up with a concerned Corkscrew warden. Apparently impressed, the warden offered them jobs working on the boardwalk building crew the next summer.
NO PHONE, NO MAIL
The day after his high school graduation, Carlson pulled up in his loaded Volkswagon Squareback (the automaker’s version of a station wagon) and reported for duty.
It was 1968. Corkscrew had just gotten electricity. Mail service and phone service hadn’t reached it yet. Carlson remembers showing up at crashes on Immokalee Road with blankets to keep victims shaded until help could arrive, sometimes hours later.
On the boardwalk crew, he got the job of setting the pilings because he was the tallest at 6 feet 5 inches. The pilings, hewn from dead pine snags, weighed well over 100 pounds, Carlson said.
He returned to Corkscrew to work on the boardwalk during breaks from school at at the University of South Florida, where he majored in zoology. His favorite job was cutting the pilings, staying alone for a week at a time in a comfortable and well-provisioned ranger station.
“I got my fix, my swamp exploration fix,” Carlson said.
A CJ6 Jeep doubled as a swamp buggy. He hauled in bacon, eggs, canned ham, baked beans, sardines, saltine crackers, chunks of cheddar cheese and gigantic onions grown in Immokalee — and gas cans for the chainsaw and tree hauling vehicle.
Carlson later enrolled in graduate school at the University of Florida. He became a student of revered wetlands scientist Howard Odom, who at the time was creating a new field called ecological engineering. One day, Odom asked Carlson’s class whether anyone knew anything about Corkscrew Swamp.
“My hand went up,” Carlson said. “Nobody’s else’s hand went up.”
Carlson said Odom pointed at him and told him to come to his office. Odom wanted to use Corkscrew as a control site for experiments studying the capacity of wetlands to clean up wastewater, and he needed someone who knew every nook and cranny.
Carlson spent three-plus years on the project, working for the Audubon science center in the Florida Keys, putting in monitoring wells, taking soil borings, testing water quality and measuring tree growth. It was his first job with Audubon, and he never had to interview for another one.
In 1983, Audubon tapped him to fill the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary manager’s job. Under his leadership, the preserve created plans for prescribed burns and exotic vegetation removal, established visitor education programs and recruited volunteers.
When then-National Audubon senior vice president Eric Draper made an unannounced visit to Corkscrew on one prescribed burn day, Carlson handed his boss a fire starter and pointed him toward the fire line.
“He’s the kind of leader you want to follow into a fire with a drip torch in your hand,” Draper said.
CHANGE IN A HEARTBEAT
In the 1990s, Carlson kicked off a $7 million fund-raising campaign that rebuilt the boardwalk he had helped build two decades earlier and built the sanctuary’s Blair Audubon Center, one of 50 Audubon nature centers around the United States.
“I think you could consider it National Audubon’s premier nature center and I think that’s a credit to Ed,” said Draper, now Audubon Florida’s executive director.
Through it all, Carlson never shook the sight that greeted him in 1972, when he returned to that ranger station that served as his base. Looking across the sanctuary’s border, Carlson saw fields of yellow crook-necked squash where there had been pinelands, prairies and marshes for as far as he could see.
“I damned near felt like crying,” he said.
The experience taught him a lesson about conservation: Everything can change in a heartbeat, he said, and even Corkscrew is vulnerable.
He remembered that field when he became a leading advocate for a land preservation program that has put 50,000 acres of the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, or CREW, into public hands with Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary at its heart.
Carlson successfully pushed a deal to take over management of those former fields after they were restored as part of the Panther Island Mitigation Bank. The deal expanded the sanctuary by 2,800 acres. Now another 1,200 acres of those fields are set to be restored.
From natural lands to agricultural fields back to natural lands, “all in one lifetime,” Carlson said.
Still, Carlson wondered aloud in a speech earlier this year at an Audubon gala at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, whether it all would be enough to keep the wood storks coming back to Corkscrew.
“If the wood stork colony fails, so have I,” Carlson hand-wrote on notebook paper from which he gave his remarks. “What do I do? What do we do?”
He answered his own question: “No matter how long. No matter how distant. Never give up.”