Only a century ago the southern third of Florida was a wet wilderness. Lake Okeechobee was nearly twice its current size, though it remains Florida’s largest lake today. Water from the huge lake crept down the peninsula through swamps and sawgrass marshes. Rainfall that did not seep into the underlying limestone sat on the nearly flat land. The only dry areas were on the Atlantic coastal ridge and the Everglades hammocks. Indigenous people inhabited south Florida even before these wetter climatic conditions.
Florida Photo Archives
When European explorers arrived, they found the natives near estuaries and on the coastal ridge, where they hunted, fished and gathered wild foods. People traveled from these villages back and forth to camps in the Everglades to hunt and fish, much as modern urban dwellers do today.
By the mid-1700s, the original Indian cultures encountered by early explorers were gone. A few hundred Seminoles and Miccosukees escaped to south Florida at the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842. They established small settlements on the tree islands where they hunted, fished, gardened and collected wild foods. They plied the waterways in cypress canoes and, toward the end of the 19th century, began trading alligator hides and egret feathers -- desirable commodities in the world of women's fashions -- in exchange for sewing machines and other goods.
In 1948 Congress authorized the central and south Florida Project to protect agricultural and urban areas from flooding and to serve as a source of fresh water for what was becoming the heavily populated Gold Coast. Numerous canals, levees and water control structures were constructed from 1949 to 1962. These structures altered the natural hydroperiod and disrupted sheet flow from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. On some portions of the area, drained land was used for sugar cane cultivation or cattle ranching.
The WMA was named for Ray Rotenberger, who constructed a small camp and airfield there during the late 1950s or early 1960s. Around the same time period, private mineral interests drilled an exploratory oil well near the south central boundary and constructed a two-acre support pad and access road to the L-4 levee.
The first portion of the area (6,300 acres) was purchased by the state under the Environmentally Endangered Lands Act in 1975. In 1994, the state passed the Everglades Forever Act to continue efforts to address environmental concerns related to quality, quantity and timing of water entering the Everglades. The FWC, U.S. Department of the Interior, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District are among the state and federal agencies that work toward restoration efforts for the Everglades.