- [Betty] The way I feel it when I'm out there is that I'm returning home.
It feels like the wind is embracing you.
The United States Government came to a truce with us and because they figured that nobody could survive in this vast wilderness, they probably thought we were all going to die.
But our people, we were meant to be a part of nature.
The other foreigners coming into this land didn't understand the environment and didn't know her secrets, but our people did.
That's why we're here today.
[warm music] ♪ - [host, Joe Hanson] Some may see a swamp.
Others, a still body of water.
But the Everglades is actually a river, the widest and slowest in the country.
A continuous stream of fresh water, a hundred kilometers wide.
It meanders through south Florida at four kilometers per day.
The Everglades is one of the largest wetlands on the planet.
More than a million acres filled with plants and animals uniquely adapted to this watery world.
For generations, the Miccosukee people have called this home.
- [Betty] Back in the earlier days in the history of Florida, when the US Cavalry, when they were trying to hunt our people down to force relocation, the Everglades provided us a sanctuary.
If it wasn't for the Everglades, we wouldn't be here.
- [Joe] One of the secrets to the Miccosukees' survival has been curious patches of elevated land called tree islands.
- [Betty] The Miccosukee people, when they came down into the Everglades, they use the tree islands to live on.
The pine trees, they used those trees to build shelter on the islands.
We honor those islands by taking care of them and passing on the history of that island to the future generations.
- [Joe] Thousands of tree islands are sprinkled throughout the Everglades.
They're some of the only dry places around.
They range from the size of a swimming pool, up to one kilometer long.
And there's a growing understanding that they may be the key to conserving this delicate ecosystem.
The islands support a surprising array of wildlife, coyotes, deer, bobcat, even the Florida Panther.
In spite of their importance, little is known about the role these islands play in the ecosystem.
Scientists from the Miccosukee Tribe are trying to change that.
- [Marcel] Prior to our project, there's not really been anything that's known about what wildlife use the islands, how they use them, even basic information like diet, it's not really known.
Using our trail cameras, we're trying to figure out what species of wildlife are also using the island.
- [Craig] Some of the most surprising animals are the black bear.
I never thought that the bears would be utilizing the Wetland habitat.
It's unknown at this time, whether the bears are living out here because it's a preferred habitat or because the bear population has expanded so much and its forcing bears out into other habitat.
And we're hoping that's what the research will inform us.
- [Marcel] We frequently see alligator holes adjacent to the island.
A gator hole is a habitat that the alligator uses and is typically a natural depression, and they'll start to excavate it to make it a little bit deeper and kind of better for themselves.
Tree islands are the source of life and stability for pretty much all species out here.
They kind of all depend on these tree islands to maintain the balance of the ecosystem.
Sometimes they have completely different communities and vegetation on them, and that's going to affect what wildlife use those islands, because the plants are kind of the base of everything.
It's their shelter, it's their food.
[Craig murmuring] - [Craig] Certain vegetation will only grow where it has the right niche.
Diversity on the tree islands is really important because the greater diversity, the greater amount of food you have for animals.
- [Joe] Some of the vegetation on these islands like hardwood trees, are particularly sensitive to fluctuations in water levels.
Too much water and they drown, too little and they dry out.
- [Craig] High water is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's the duration of the flooding of tree islands that is more of a problem.
- [Marcel] People began altering the flow of the water in the Everglades back in the early 19 hundreds, when the intent was to try to drain the land for agriculture and for development.
They did this by creating a bunch of canals and levies that were kind of diverting the natural flow of water out towards the ocean.
- [Craig] And some areas are too dry, some areas too flooded.
And so you don't get the historic flow that used to occur.
Tree islands now get flooded and they remain flooded for a longer duration, anything from two to six months.
[water sloshing] - [Betty] There are times that we can't use those islands for ceremony.
So, that impacts the culture of the Miccosukee.
There are times that the deers don't have a place to seek refuge because the islands can be up to three feet underwater.
- [Craig] The small mammals and the larger mammals just can't survive for that length of time on inundated islands.
Small mammals are such an important part of the ecosystem for transporting seeds into different areas.
[leaves rustling] We are reintroducing some of the small animals back onto tree islands.
[bouncy music] [camera thuds] - [Marcel] Certain species of plants on the tree islands cannot tolerate flooding for much more than 10 days a year.
The tree islands are essentially drowning.
- [Betty] And the islands itself start dying.
The tree roots are start dying.
And when the trees start dying on the island, the roots of those trees is what holds the islands together.
So, the islands will start shrinking.
- [Joe] Without tree roots to hold onto the soil, the islands erode and slowly disappear.
Nearly 70% of the tree islands have disappeared since the 1940s.
That's largely due to flooding because of how water flow has been managed.
- [Betty] We have tribal members today that remember living on tree islands and have seen the changes to this area.
Even in my short lifetime, I've seen the changes.
Our people were taught that in our time of need, the Everglades was here for us.
So now that it's her time of need, we have to stand up and protect her because someone has to speak for the voiceless.
the Miccosukee People, we advocate for reconnecting the landscape.
[boat whirring] We need to heal the environment because the way that it's being approached for Everglades restoration is still man trying to control nature.
I say, you need to get out of nature's way.
And when it rains, let the water go where water wants to go, where water historically went.
The Everglades is precious.
It's the only one in existence on the world.
If it disappears, we're not going to have another one.
This place is yours.
It doesn't just belong to Florida.
The Everglades is a part of the world.
So, everyone has that right to have it protected so that their future generations can experience the Everglades.
[warm music] ♪