The Florida Everglades Forever Act, signed in 1994, prioritized Everglades restoration, and a federal followup in 2000 outlined $11.9 billion in projects that would be completed over four decades. But many of those plans have become bogged down in bureaucracy — compromised and underfunded, Frank says.

He's now a point man for the tribe on Everglades issues and recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with tribal chairman Colley Billie to urge Congress to prioritize key restoration projects.

On a recent seven-hour airboat tour of the Glades, Frank and others depart near the Miccosukee Indian Village off the Tamiami Trail just as the morning light cuts through the endless sawgrass.

Michael Frank: "I'm still here, and I'm still waiting."
Deirdra Funcheon
Michael Frank: "I'm still here, and I'm still waiting."

The team encounters only a few scattered birds where there used to be 100,000, the native surveyors and their scientists say. If there are any frogs or deer about, they remain hidden on the tree islands that sweep to the horizon like thousands of stepping stones.

Water hyacinths proliferate like carpets — but the floating plant with the lavender flower is actually an invasive species that can double its spread in six days. Cattails choke the waterways — "a sign of polluted water," Frank says. "The phosphorus and nutrient levels are too high."

Frank sadly explains the Miccosukee name for that area means "brightly lit place." He says the river otters, bobcats, raccoons, and rabbits that were common 20 years ago are scarce now. "When I was a boy, I'd look down and there'd be a snake wrapped around my leg," he says. But today there's little wildlife, and the deer that were once plentiful have virtually disappeared. "When the water is too high, they drown or go up on a levee, where they are easy targets for hunters."

These days, Frank lives in a house. "I've got a master bedroom, a walk-in closet" — but he still maintains his island and plants corn on it every year.

He says the tribe is still seeking two basic things from the government: "Maintain the proper level of water, and clean the water before you pump it in."

"There isn't anything new," he laments. "It's the same circle. Every four years, there's a new president, a new governor, a new EPA, new senators. I have to re-educate everyone again. I'm still here, and I'm still waiting."

If the U.S. government ever carries out its plan and restores the Everglades, there'll be one main force to thank, Frank says. "The voters? They don't know nothing. The Miccosukee Tribe — it's us that's going to push them."

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