READ: Everglades Named To CNN'S Wonderlist

(CNN) The next time you fly to see Grandma in Florida, look down.

The next time you take the kids on a pilgrimage to see the talking mouse or head down to South Beach for some sun/sin, get a window seat and spend the moments before landing contemplating the seemingly endless swamp below.

Because there are few places that represent the folly of man -- and the cost of redemption -- like the Everglades.

On approach into Miami or Orlando, it just looks like squishy wasteland full of things that want to hurt you: snakes and scorpions, rats and roaches, gators and mosquitoes. (A researcher once caught 365,000 bloodthirsty bugs in a single trap in a single night.)

As you drive along the Tamiami Trail, it just looks like endless sawgrass, the kind that feels like walking through broken glass.

"Too wet to farm, too dry to sail, too unpredictable to settle," as Michael Grunwald put it in his definitive history, "The Swamp."

And so, a century ago, some American dreamers decided to drain the swamp. They decided to conquer that uninhabitable frontier known as Florida. And long before air conditioning, bug spray and Social Security helped seal that vision, the Army Corps of Engineers blasted and dug 2,000 miles of dams and dikes, ditches and pipes.

They did a hell of a job. A watershed built for 2 million people now supports nearly 8 million, and another 50 million tourists each year.

But what they didn't know is that without this swamp, there can be no "good life" in Florida. There can be no life.

After a century of development, half the Everglades is dead and the other half is on life support.

This is a problem, not just for the gators and snakes.

It is a problem for the eagles, panthers, snails, dolphins, hawks, manatees, flamingos, vase sponges, black bears and ghost orchids that make up the most unique, diverse wetlands in the world.

And most of all, it is a problem for people.

Because most of the drinking water in South Florida comes from the aquifers beneath the Everglades.

This 2 million-acre river of grass is not only the best form of hurricane protection, it also supports the multibillion-dollar fishing, shrimping and crabbing industries around the Florida Keys. What was once a slow-moving river of gin-clear water became so sluggish and toxic in the 1990s that most of the life in Florida Bay was wiped out -- and America woke up.
Fifteen years after then-Gov. Jeb Bush smiled as Bill Clinton signed the most ambitious wildlife reclamation plan in history, the same Army Corps of Engineers that was ordered to rip the Everglades apart is now under orders to help it heal, to the tune of $13 billion as part of a larger congressional restoration plan.

That story hook is what drew me here for the final episode of our first season of"The Wonder List." To be honest, as a veteran of a few ho-hum airboat rides, I came with really low expectations.

But this place, more than any other this season, surprised me with sublime beauty, great stories and a sense of real urgency as good people try to right the wrongs of the past.

Nowhere else is the border between bustling civilization and untamed wilderness so narrow, which is why conservationists like to say that the Everglades is a test.

If we pass, we might just get to keep the planet.

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