Who Lost America’s Everglades?

“Skyrocketing land prices and other costs have jeopardized the likelihood that the Everglades restoration project will ever be completed, a federal engineer said,” to the AP on Thanksgiving Day, 2007. I hope its timing stirs the ire of Americans.

The question, then, who lost the Everglades?

Who lost the Everglades; the liquid heart of Florida, an international symbol for degraded ecosystems that could be restored to ensure that the services of nature are not lost by man to his benefit?

Earlier this year, political operatives in the Bush White House prevailed upon the UN to withdraw the Everglades from its list of threatened world heritage sites, further affirmation of the attention deficit disorder that has done so much harm to US reputation abroad.

It is a strange thanksgiving blessing in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ admission it can’t even estimate if, and when, and how much the original plan to restore the Everglades will cost. It started out as 68 separately funded projects to cost $7.8 billion. Now, the Corps admits: no one knows.

Today’s AP report states, “The grim assessment came from Gary Hardesty, a top federal engineer in charge of the project, which has failed to live up to its ambitious promise since Congress approved it amid much public fanfare in 2000.”

There is plenty of blame for the US Army Corps of Engineers. The recent 2007 Water Resources Development Act-that triggered the first Congressional override of a presidential veto in the Bush terms-contains nothing with respect to reform of the Corps.

While the federal government, it is true, has fallen far short of promised funding for the Everglades, and it is also true that the separation of the Corps’ permitting arm from its planning head is an American tragedy, it is not the Corps but the State of Florida that has miserably failed to account for rampant overdevelopment ruining Everglades restoration.

The failure to control growth is visible in 100,000 subdivisions and condo developments around the state, through a burst of a building frenzy that began with the lowering of interest rates by the Federal Reserve in 2000.

Today, the failure of growth management by the state, itself, is being overshadowed by fallout from crashing housing markets. The scope of the impacts to state and local government budgets is a calamity overwhelming considerations for the natural environment in Florida, aquifers across the state and degraded water quality everywhere.

Why should Americans care, about the Everglades, if Florida is to blame?

Because the dictum is still true, as expressed many years ago by Joe Podgor, then director of the grass roots group, Friends of the Everglades: “The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we get to keep the planet.”

What Podgor meant is this: if we can’t summon the political will to protect the natural systems of a national park, in which the intersection of state, local and federal responsibilities is clearly delineated in the world’s wealthiest nation, then who has the will to solve the imminent threat to civilization: climate change?

So, how did Florida cause this Everglades disaster?

The responsibility lies squarely with production homebuilders, the Growth Machine and political enablers in the Florida legislature and local governments, a tsunami of political fealty built, we now know, on Chamber of Commerce enthusiasms backed by liar loans, mortgage fraud, and a Ponzi scheme of financial derivatives totaling hundreds of billions for which no one will go to jail.

Both the housing crash and the destruction of the Everglades are outward manifestations of a democracy that lost its way, a nation of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison turned over to the imperative of “free” markets gone haywire, mad with greed and nary a whimper from the mainstream media.

A decade ago, in 1998, Governor Lawton Chiles handed state responsibility for Everglades restoration to the first-term governor, Jeb Bush.

During Chiles’ term, a plan had been laid out by Democrats, through a blue ribbon panel called the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida-lead by then Audubon Florida chair and former state legislative leader, Richard Pettigrew, to restore the Everglades.

Chiles’ Commission-a precursor to the political consensus that resulted in federal legislation to “save” the Everglades in 2000-was heavily balanced to the Growth Machine, notwithstanding Chairman Pettigrew’s role.

On December 11, 2000, the very day the US Supreme Court was stealing a presidential election, President Clinton and Governor Jeb Bush shook hands on the White House lawn and signed into law the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

But there were only a few environmental organizations surrounding President Clinton and Governor Bush-led by Audubon, the conservation group most inclined to rules of compromise, of the insider dealing that results in legislation.

According to a press statement by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at the time, “The restoration of America’s Everglades has been one of my administration’s top priorities,” Governor Bush said. “I congratulate the U.S. Congress for its broad bipartisan support of this legislation, especially Florida’s Congressional delegation, as well as the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their involvement in achieving this important milestone for Everglades restoration.”

But that is not the equation that cost the Everglades. While Clinton triangulated to his imagined center, the essential balance of protecting the Everglades had long before yielded to the zealous profit motive of Florida’s Growth Machine, wrapping up land speculators, Big Agriculture, cement manufacturers, and the building industry in one great storm of special interests.

Certainly, the writing was on the wall-even in the early 1990’s as Democratic leadership in the White House and Tallahassee agreed to bury the hatchet on interminable litigation related to the pollution of the Everglades by Big Sugar-pollution that continues to march into the Everglades despite laws, timelines, and the continuous involvement of a federal judge special master.

But the current carrying along conservation groups, special interests, and government agencies had been determined even earlier, by a president under even more pressure than Bill Clinton.

The Republican Nixon White House signed into law the 1972 Clean Water Act. What Wikipedia says, of the CWA is: Pursuant to the 1972 act, the Environmental Protection Agency began to promulgate effluent guidelines that regulate water pollution from industry categories. While the effluent guidelines have been largely successful, because they apply to specific sources and are enforceable, the health- and water-quality-based standards have been much less so. As of 2007, approximately half of the rivers, lakes, and bays under EPA oversight were not safe enough for fishing and swimming. [2] The most important remaining cause of these problems (typically, diffuse runoff from farms, streets, and yards) is known as nonpoint source pollution, which was not addressed in the 1972 Act.

In other words, the creation of the CWA and other federal environmental laws provided a wall for industry to push against. In the ensuing three decades, laws like the CWA have been under continual erosion by industry, often lead by the states under the influence of campaign contributions from big polluters and industry.

If the failure of Everglades restoration has a father, a Darth Vader if you will, it would be in 1995-three years before Jeb Bush took office-when the federal EPA “delegated” responsibility for water resource laws to the State of Florida, opening up a chasm into which common sense would be swallowed whole.

Here is the ultimate result of turning over responsibility for water to Florida politics: the loss of accountability by any government agency or decision-maker for the destruction of water resources, including the Everglades.

If the devolution of authority from the federal to state government was seized by President Clinton to take the wind out of the sails of a Republican majority that had made its Contract with America in the 1994 mid-term elections, it was Jeb Bush who seized the rudder and swung it hard to port, to put Everglades “restoration” on a new tack.

And it is Jeb Bush who, despite billions of dollars he committed on behalf of the state to “accelerate” restoration, who bears responsibility for unzippering the Everglades in order to instill massive growth of construction and development at the fringe of the Everglades, according to the imperatives of key campaign fundraisers.

Under Republican leadership in the legislature and Governor’s Mansion, Jeb planned to use water resource management in Florida as a pipe to gather political capital, with strategically placed spigots where massive water infrastructure projects would need to be implemented in order to accommodate the Growth Machine.

Never mind the Everglades: it was always about campaign money in Florida.

Jeb Bush arrived in Tallahassee with a conservative mission and playbook by Karl Rove and Grover Norquist calling for the dismantling of government authority. Period. The environment would be taken care of by industry cooperation. Conflict and litigation would be resolved by a firm, paternal hand that rewarded compliant environmentalists and punished the unruly.

In the euphoria of his very first inaugural address, Governor Bush’s eyes lit on the Tallahassee landscape and he expressed his hope that his tenure would be measured by fewer government employees in those buildings, a better-dressed way of espousing the Norquist dictum, to shrink the size of government so it could be drowned in a bathtub.

The question is, of course, can the Everglades be saved?

The answer is no: not so long as government agencies charged with protecting the environment remain passive hostages to the status quo and not so long as environmental organizations play right into their hands.

The answer is yes, if the public embraces and acknowledges what is at stake.

Florida’s Growth Machine and everything that its politics represent have had their day-what the state’s crashing housing markets and quality of life say to voters is this: the Growth Machine failed Floridians and failed the Everglades.

It is time for a new balance to emerge, but it won’t happen if environmental groups remain beaten down by passivity and decorum. It won’t happen if contributors to progressive causes like the environment in Florida are simply pulled along by the current.

And it won’t happen if scientists who know better, allow themselves to be shackled by retirement packages and fear for their careers: the time to act is now. It is also time for the mainstream media to grasp where its herd behavior has led its readers and viewers.

We may indeed get to keep the planet, if we can marshal the political will to save the Everglades. But if we don’t, the American century is over. Despite our trillions of GDP and investment, the United States is increasingly irrelevant to the outcome of crises and conflicts afflicting the world. We had a vision for the Everglades, and, for the planet.

If we lost our way, it happened in Florida.

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