Tangled Up in Blue

Last week, Congress handed President Bush the first override of a presidential veto. The issue was the Water Resources Development Act– and for Florida, what was at stake was reviving the federal half of Everglades restoration.

In 2000, Congress set out to solve the Everglades restoration riddle (in the last WRDA Act) that had been wrapped up in more than a decade of litigation relating to Big Sugar’s pollution of federal lands.

It became one of the signature environmental efforts of the Clinton White House: putting aside the acrimony between the state and federal government and moving forward in Florida with concrete plans to restore the fabled River of Grass. Seven years later, cynics call it: the River of Gas.

In Grist (htttp://grist.org), writer Michael Grunwald–the nation’s leading authority on the US Army Corps of Engineers–, was emphatic about the wrong-headedness of Democrats and Repulicans uniting to override a fatally flawed bill. Moreover he wrote, “… the greens are deluded if they think their restoration projects will take precedence over the usual dredge-and-drain work favored by Congress and the Corps. There are already billions of dollars worth of authorized restoration projects for the Everglades and coastal Louisiana; Congress just hasn’t been funding them.”

The AP report on the presidential veto turned to Audubon. Grunwald repeats the quote, “If there is a cause that merits a historic vote such as this, it’s fitting that the cause be to restore some of our most special places before they are lost forever,” crowed April Gromnicki, Audubon’s director of ecosystem restoration.”

Even before 2000 it was clear as day that the only review and accountability for Everglades restoration would be undertaken by the Corps itself, in conjunction with the state water management district whose board is dominated by representatives of land speculators, Big Sugar, and the Growth Machine. The 2003 promulgation of rules (ie. the board game) by which dozens of government agencies would interact to move Everglades restoration according to the will of Congress triggered objections by Sierra Club in Florida: objections that were met with frosty anger by Audubon.

It was as though the prevailing view in Florida on the environment was, “take what you can, live to fight another day, compromise always give you a chance for another bite at the apple.” And never, never criticize your brethren in public.

If Marjory Stoneman Douglas is watching these events unfold from heaven, she is shaking her fists in anger.

Over the years, the public has come to believe that the Everglades have been saved. What would you expect, where environmental groups have signed off and blessed a process that will take so long, the cycle of retirement will claim original champions long before the results are in, and where the results will be measured at any rate by government agencies who have performed the contracting work?

Grunwald writes, “It’s hard to see how this vote helps that (Everglades) cause, even if it gives Audubon something to brag about to clueless donors. The Corps already has a $58 billion backlog of unfinished projects. It needs 900 additional projects like Dom DeLuise needs a butt enhancement.”

Audubon is the only environmental organization with Florida with the budget and staff to “track” the byzantine process that has unfolded from the promises of 2000. Even then, with only one or two staffers–often juniors for whom the Everglades is a stepping stone to further career advancement–Audubon and the environmentalists have been hopelessly outmanoevered, except where it comes to AP and the mainstream press needing a quote.

There are other forceful and reasoned voices. But they are not heard, or, if they are heard they are shunted off to committees where obfuscation, delay, and caution rule.

The result has been a mess in Florida: endless platitudes about the balance between the environment and the economy have proceeded through the rampant destruction of wetlands, aquifers, coral reefs, pristine bays.

The Congressional override ignored the pent-up demand for Corps reform: a goal fervently sought by groups like Sierra Club in the Midwest and their leaders, like Mark Beokrem–who tragically passed away before he could witness today’s unfolding history. Mark was a Mississippi and Missouri River advocate. He was part of an intrepid and fearless group of advocates who hoped, with all their hearts, that during their lifetimes that Congress would undertake reform of the US Army Corps.

Midwest Sierra advocates and their allies argued that without reform of the Corps, the massive multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects now undertaken under a “green banner” would always be skewed to the worst kind of special interest domination, pressure and insider politics.

But if any of the Florida environmental groups involved with Everglades restoration were willing to stand on the issue of Corps Reform in the latest Water Resources Development Act, it is too late now.

The Everglades environmentalists would not postpone the unleashing of federal funding (although, as environmental tormentor US Senator James Inhofe has pronouced–authorization is not the same as appropriation).

Grunwald is 100 percent on target when he concludes for Grist: “Now that Congress has its pork, it’s got no incentive to reform the butcher. It’s sad that enviros helped make that happen, just because some of the bacon bits were for them.”

But it has always been that way in Florida on the environment. Audubon, Jeb’s favored environmental organization in Florida, has represented for many years the insider end of environmental politics, and for its part, Audubon has been pleased enough to be the lauded, praised and token presence on blue ribbon panels, in papal conclaves in the Governor’s Mansion such as they have been in the past, including the confidence of powerful Democrats like former US Senator Bob Graham or Congresswoman Carrie Meek.

It is a tribute, in a way, to special interests that control the Florida legislature and the Congress. They got what they wanted: the ceaseless growth of suburbs into wetlands, protected crops like sugar into the Everglades, destroyed aquifers, and water quality, and they got environmentalists to agree it was the best result possible.

ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.


Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net