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Trouble brewing in Florida's swamps

“The Wildlands Project,” published in Wild Earth in 1992, chose a map of Florida to illustrate its concept of core wilderness areas, connected by corridors of wilderness, all surrounded by “buffer zones,” managed for “conservation objectives.” What are conservation objectives? Reed Noss, author of “The Wildlands Project,” says “… the collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.”

The humans who live in South Florida are seeing the needs of non-human populations being given priority over the property rights and livelihoods of the people who live there. The entire Everglades is shown on the Wildlands map as a core wilderness area, surrounded by buffer zones that reach from Miami to Key West.

CERP – the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan – is the name used to describe 52 projects to transform South Florida into the Wildlands project’s vision of how the state ought to be.

The initiative was launched by environmentalists who convinced the politicians that the Everglades has been destroyed, and must be restored to save biodiversity in the ecosystem.

Among the organizations that are promoting the restoration project are: the Nature Conservancy, which received more than $136 million in federal grants between 1997 and 2001; the Audubon Society, recipient of $10 million in federal grants during the same period; and the World Wildlife Fund, which has received more than $70 million in federal grants.

The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society funded the writing of “The Wildlands Project,” according to its author, Reed Noss.

Politicians, however, depend on votes and money from industry, as well as from environmental organizations, so the plan necessarily included input from the business community.

When the plan finally came together, it was supposed to achieve three equal priorities: expand water supplies for South Florida’s exploding population; control water flows and prevent flooding; and provide sufficient water flows to restore the Everglades. This tenuous agreement was the basis on which President Clinton and Gov. Jeb Bush launched the $7.8 billion project on Dec. 11, 2000.

From day one, the project was in trouble. While the U.S. Corps of Engineers is the agency with overall responsibility, there are several other federal agencies, state agencies and county agencies involved – all with turf to protect and agendas to advance. Riding herd on all these agencies, is a network of environmental organizations, each with their own interests and agendas. Then comes the powerful industries that employ people and pay taxes. At the bottom of the list are the land owners – those who are most directly affected by the restoration plan.

At the moment, everyone is unhappy. The environmentalists are threatening to withdraw support if higher priority is not assigned to Everglades restoration. Scientists within the implementing agencies have no idea whether the plan will work. And the landowners are finally organizing to say “enough is enough.”

According to an extensive report in the Washington Post, Stuart J. Appelbaum, the Army Corps of Engineers man in charge, says “We have no idea if this will work.” The EPA’s South Florida director says of the project, “It’s falling apart before my eyes.” And Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Bob Gasaway, says “I don’t see a shred of evidence that all this money will help the environment.”

Shannon Estenoz, an engineer for the World Wildlife Fund, says he is getting angrier by the day and thinks his organization’s folks may have been “suckers” for having supported the CERP.

All these problems with the CERP may be dwarfed by the trouble that is now brewing in the Florida swamp. The land owners are getting tired of seeing their property flooded, or condemned and taken, or devalued by the threat of future projects.

Homeowners associations, property-rights groups and legal-defense funds have sprung up all across South Florida. Edmund W. Antonowicz, secretary of the 15,000 Coalition, fired off a letter to President Bush, urging him to step in and prevent the massive land grabs that are going on. Madeleine Fortin’s Legal Defense Foundation sued the Corps of Engineers, charging that the Corps lacked legislative authority to condemn land outside the original “footprint” authorized in 1989. A preliminary ruling finds in favor of the land owners.

These efforts have attracted the attention of the Paragon Foundation in Alamogordo, N.M., which sent Jay Walley, to meet with more than 40 representatives of area organizations in Homestead on June 29. The meeting produced a skeletal plan to create a broad coalition to guide a national effort to stop the erosion of private property rights in South Florida, and restore some semblance of sanity to the CERP.