Friday, November 02, 2007

Effort to Save Everglades Falters as Funds Drop

by Abby Goodnough
The New York Times
November 2, 2007

The rescue of the Florida Everglades, the largest and most expensive environmental restoration project on the planet, is faltering.

Seven years into what was supposed to be a four-decade, $8 billion effort to reverse generations of destruction, federal financing has slowed to a trickle. Projects are already years behind schedule. Thousands of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat continue to disappear, paved by developers or blasted by rock miners to feed the hungry construction industry.

The idea that the federal government could summon the will and money to restore the subtle, sodden grandeur of the so-called River of Grass is disappearing, too.

Supporters say the effort would get sorely needed momentum from a long-delayed federal bill authorizing $23 billion in water infrastructure projects, including almost $2 billion for the Everglades.

But President Bush is expected to veto the bill, possibly on Friday. And even if Congress overrides the veto, which is likely, grave uncertainties will remain.

The product of a striking bipartisan agreement just before the 2000 presidential election, the plan aims to restore the gentle, shallow flow of water from Lake Okeechobee, in south-central Florida, into the Everglades, a vast subtropical marshland at the state’s southern tip.

That constant, slow coursing nurtured myriad species of birds, fish and other animals across the low-lying Everglades, half of which have been lost to agriculture and development over the last century.

The plan calls for new reservoirs and other storage systems to capture excess water during South Florida’s rainy seasons, guaranteeing an adequate water supply for cities and farms as well as the Everglades. That provision helped win the support of the powerful sugar industry, whose farms have long encroached on and polluted the Everglades, and of Jeb Bush, then the governor.

Mr. Bush is the younger brother of President Bush, and supporters of the restoration hoped his close ties with the White House would guarantee its early success. But while Jeb Bush invested heavily in the project, federal enthusiasm seemed to fade after its champions in Congress, including Senators Bob Graham and Connie Mack of Florida, left office and the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and other crises emerged.

A changing economy, too, hurt the plan. It passed in a year with a record budget surplus, but the climate changed sharply after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Some state officials say the plan, which involves dozens of complex engineering projects, also got bogged down in federal bureaucracy, a victim of “analysis paralysis.”

Some environmentalists believe that having Jeb Bush in Tallahassee even hurt the restoration because the White House effectively handed it off to him. As a result, pressing state priorities — enough drinking water and flood control to accommodate rapid population growth in South Florida — took precedence over restoring a clean flow of water to Everglades National Park and the surrounding ecosystem.

Nathaniel P. Reed, a conservationist who was an assistant interior secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said that Karl Rove, President Bush’s former political strategist, supported the restoration because he thought it was good politics — “the Bush brothers saving a dying ecosystem,” Mr. Reed said. With Mr. Rove gone and the clock running down on the president’s tenure, he said, the Everglades are more vulnerable than ever.

“Everything now depends on 2008,” Mr. Reed said. “Everglades restoration depends on electing a president who can reignite the national consciousness that this great program should not fail.”

So far, though, most presidential candidates have yet to utter the word “Everglades.” In the only mention that has made news, Fred D. Thompson, a Republican, suggested he might allow oil drilling there.

While the Bush administration says it remains committed to the restoration, critics say its actions suggest otherwise. Although the cost of the effort was to be split evenly between Florida and Washington, the state so far has spent about $2 billion and the federal government only $358 million, though it has also helped finance some projects planned before the 2000 legislation.

Moreover, earlier this year, the Department of the Interior asked the United Nations to remove Everglades National Park from its list of endangered World Heritage sites. While largely symbolic, the removal sends the message that the Everglades no longer need help, said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.

“I have to deal in a world of perception and symbols,” Mr. Nelson said, “and when I’m begging each year for appropriations for Everglades restoration and suddenly the perception is, ‘Well, the Everglades is making a lot of progress,’ it’s tying my hands behind my back in trying to get the federal share.”

Florida, too, has done things to jeopardize the effort, said former Senator Graham, a Democrat who started the movement to save the Everglades in the 1980s. In 2003, the Legislature, under pressure from the sugar industry, postponed enforcement of strict pollution limits in the Everglades until 2016.

“It’s so important to avoid doing anything to send the signal that there’s less than full commitment in the state where the Everglades is located,” Mr. Graham said. “Frankly, there are people in Washington looking for any sign of lack of commitment in Florida.”

Florida has another perception problem, Mr. Graham said, in that it continues to permit development in environmentally sensitive areas — sometimes even in the restoration footprint. Although the state has bought 55 percent of the land needed for the restoration, crucial land remains private.

Read more here.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


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