Sawgrass Rebellion to Ride Crest
of Eco-Excess Outrage
As wildfires scorch much of Oregon and large parts of other western states, organizers continue preparations for a thronging media event timed to ride the crest of a surge of popular outrage.
Though one branch of the trans-national caravan leading to the planned event starts in Oregon, it will climax October 17-19 at Florida's southern tip, as far from the western fires as a person remaining in the contiguous states can wander. Its timing was inadvertent, not calculated in response to the firestorms. Its chief focus is on heedless flooding, not heedlessly-aggravated infernos. And the seeming incongruities may not matter at all.
The fires have already consumed more than four million acres of forest and range nationwide this year, a record. But they represent only a fraction of the devastation of environments and human interests the Sawgrass Rebellion's campaigners mean to thrust into the national consciousness. The campaign is only one phalanx of a building surge of fury provoked by perceived abuses and excesses inflicted on homeowners, farmers, ranchers, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and the environment itself in the name of preserving, conserving, or restoring some people's notions of ecological pristineness.
The specific grievance the event was conceived to publicize involves the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project. That is an elaborate federal undertaking originally designed to increase water depth and rate of flow, and thereby restore wildlife, in Florida's famed "River of Grass". Part of the project would have transferred the increased water volume across the Tamiami Trail, a major north-south roadway. That would have prevented a water buildup in certain inhabited areas. The Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to build that facility, but the money to pay for it was appropriated to the Interior Department's Park Service, which has refused to release it. The water transfer facility, called the Modified Water Deliveries Project, was never built.
Eventually Congress added a second objective, to increase water flow into Florida Bay, which extends from the Florida Keys westward into the Gulf of Mexico. Adoption of that plan included a policy to buy out landowners in the inhabited areas. But that was not fully funded, and most of the residents did not want to sell. Some were Indians on tribal lands, and some lived in a zone officially designated the Eight-and-a-half-Square-Mile Area. Environmental absolutists and the Department of the Interior's Park Service refused to pay for and then otherwise blocked construction of the Modified Water Deliveries Project, preferring to try to buy the land. As the struggle continued, with more agencies and convolutions involved, the increased waterflow has repeatedly flooded the inhabited areas and adjacent sections of the Everglades.
The beleaguered landowners charge officialdom is deluging their dwellings and wiping out the community's economic base, commercial production of tropical fruit, winter vegetables, cut flowers, and livestock. Area activist Madeleine Fortin reports Project implementers have flooded the zone with a vengeance, soaking not only her neighbors' properties but actually drowning, choking, and obliterating long-established Everglades species. "Over half the tree islands are dead," she wrote in letter to The Paragon Foundation in March, "and endangered species are being impacted."
In April, 1999, the House of Representatives' Committee on Resources' Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands held oversight hearings to try to clear up the mess. Chairman James Hansen (R-UT), acknowledged. "Tree islands known as hammocks are disappearing as tree roots rot because of high water levels. Wildlife within this area is dying as well."
Recent litigation, Area defenders relate, established that despite all the legislative convolutions aimed at different objectives achievable by different methods or alternatives, the long-standing express intent of Congress has remained to protect private landowners in the Area, not acquire their particular lands by eminent domain condemnation, and especially not by threatening same or flooding residents out to generate "willing sellers" who have no other choice.
Apparently Green-absolutist operatives in Washington agree. The version of the Fiscal Year 2003 Department of the Interior appropriation bill that emerged from committee to the floor o the House of Representatives in July, (HR 5093RH), contained a clause directing, authorizing, and funding the Corps of Engineers to build the Modified Water Delivery Project for the area by implementing its "Alternative 6D" "without further delay" and "notwithstanding any other provision of law." But, said Fortin, that Alternative consists of condemning and acquiring private property in the Area. The effect of the clause would have been to reverse the litigation's outcome by using confusing, obscure- reference-laden language to overwhelm long-existing Congressional intent expressed in words the court found vindicated area residents. The clause vanished in the version (HR 5039 PCS) passed by the House and sent to the Senate for action. Area residents are remaining watchful lest that or some other stealthily-inserted proviso cause Congress to rob them of their lands.
Fortin said the fumbling-and-stalling-while-flooding is no accidental bungle. As the two sides struggle, she charges, it is aimed at forcing area owners to give in, abandon their holdings or sell them to government as low-value swampland rather than as prime agricultural and residential real estate. Dispirited landowners have taken to calling their community "Pariah, Florida." After investigating Fortin's claims, Sawgrass organizer Jay Zane Walley of the Paragon Foundation agreed.
Walley, a veteran property rights activist, was a major participant in 2001 demonstrations at Klamath Falls, Oregon. Those protests, deploring federal cutoffs of irrigation water to area farmers for the stated reason of protecting threatened suckerfish and coho salmon, generated nationwide publicity and eventual review and tentative revision of water allocation policies. There, as in Fortin's south Florida area, examination of the biological pretexts for the water cutoff raised serious questions, even plausible assertions more threatened and endangered species were being harmed than helped.
Those discoveries and other similar ones led to introduction in Congress of the Sound Science Amendment to the Endangered Species Act (HR 4840, reported out of committee and awaiting House passage). And in Klamath Falls as in Florida, many whiffed a stench of ulterior motives to force farmers and householders off the land, even should environmental damage be inflicted in the process.
Walley, with local resident Julie Smithson, organized successful protests at Darby, Ohio, where the eastern branch of the Sawgrass caravan will begin. There, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had launched a campaign to convert the rich agricultural, largely Amish and Mennonite region to a partially federally-owned and otherwise federally-controlled prairie wildlife preserve. Walley and allies were also active in the Elko County, Nevada chapter of the "Sagebrush Rebellion", reversing closure of the Jarbidge River Road to isolated areas targeted for so-called Wildlands restorations, and numerous other "Sagebrush" land rights struggles in many states.
Fortin and her neighbors are not raising the only South Florida objections to the Everglades Project. A study by University of Rhode Island Oceanographer Scott W. Nixon published by the National Academies' National Research Council pointed out higher water levels in and accelerated flow through the Everglades may cloud the traditionally gin-clear waters of Florida Bay with organic runoff that will proliferate marine algae. A story on that prospect, written by Peter Deluca and published August 9 on news outlet KeysNews.com, is expected to draw interest from Keys residents.
Keys-dwelling Floridians, who call themselves Conchs, take pride in their citizenship in The Conch Republic. On their website (www.ConchRepublic.com) they satirically claim to have seceded from the Union in response to establishment of a federal roadblock on U.S. Highway 1, their only land access to the mainland. Those Conchs have indeed gained fame for making serious public policy points with keenly-targeted good humor. Walley speculated many may make common cause with the beleaguered Sawgrassers of South Dade County.
Other potential Sawgrass allies are south Florida outdoor sports enthusiasts who have an old bone to pick with ecological absolutists. Not long ago, Green groups craved expansion of the publicly-owned Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida and militated to bring about public acquisition of so-called Addition Lands. They solicited the help of numerous and politically influential hunting and shooting organizations, holding out the prospect of enlarged hunting grounds, and with their help achieved the 147,280-acre expansion.
Then, as reported by David Fleshler in the August 26, 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Greens immediately started fulminating to ban all outdoor sports users from the tract, claiming their activities would disturb actual and potential habitats of endangered and threatened species.
Emphasizing their land-grab charges, Sawgrass organizers on their website (www.sawgrassrebellion.org) open with a map showing some Greens' plans for a largely depopulated, ninety-percent-publicly-owned Florida. The dates and routes for the Sawgrass event were selected before the exceptionally severe 2002 wildfire season began. When blazes struck Arizona, that state's Governor Jane Hull assigned much of the blame to environmental absolutist organizations. She charged they used administrative appeals, lawsuits, and delaying tactics to obstruct attempts to reduce potential fuel overloads. Prompted by serious fires in 2000, western governors had for some time been pressuring Congress for law and regulatory reforms that would expedite forest cleaning.
In July, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) bowed to constituent demands that national forest terrain around Sturgis, South Dakota be cleaned promptly. Sturgis was then due to host the site of an August national motorcycle rally that brings significant revenues to the area. Daschle slipped a package of exemptions from federal environmental law and regulation affecting logging, a means of clearing forests, into a sure-to-pass supplemental defense appropriations bill, even adding a clause prohibiting any judicial review of the fiat.
When other western states' Congressmembers and governors heard about Daschle's move, they demanded equivalent leniences for their own national forests. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and a number of other Senators staged a "Save Our Forests" press conference July 28. Some legislators took the position it would be better to conduct a general review of all environmental policy and legislation than to let flawed law stand and then exempt everyone from it.
To the already-pending Sound Science Amendment to the ESA were added not only exemption bills but one proposal to review the venerable National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on grounds its implementation procedures had become outmoded and maddeningly red-tape-bound. Consistently, in blazing Oregon, Senator Gordon Smith (R) and Rep. Greg Walden (R) called for moderating a long-standing Forest Service rule against felling of any trees in national forests over 21 inches in girth -- a rule adopted as a purported temporary measure many years ago. .
As Congress recessed in August, the tide of sentiment in favor of federal environmental reforms and revisions continued to build. When it reconvenes in September, the agenda is certain to be laden with bills to achieve just that. As that legislation is being hammered out, the Sawgrass Rebellion climaxes near Naples, Florida on October 17-18 and nearby Homestead on October 19.
And national off-year elections, along with many state elections, will be in November. Many House and Senate seats, as well as state governorships, are in serious contention, and the question of which major political party will control which house(s) of Congress is expected to be close and fiercely contested. And due to convulsions there in 2000, and its own high-profile gubernatorial election in November, Florida will see political battles at least as fierce as anyone's.
Land-seizure-avid Green absolutists and sympathetic, often infiltrated, federal, state and local government bureaus continue to provoke outrage, using the strategies of a united and coordinated Washington-based center against widely dispersed, relatively isolated local communities. Residents of Santa Barbara County, California are livid over a discovered attempt to impose on them a 215,000-acre Lynn Scarlett National Park, and corresponding land takings, they do not want and have collected 14,000 petition signatures in one phase of the battle. Hinterlanders across what some call "Flyover Country" are learning the lessons and techniques of coordinated resistance. The American Land Rights Association activism and lobbying group has undertaken publicizing the Santa Barbarans' plight.
Set to climax less than a month before the election, the Sawgrass Rebellion has emerged virtually certain to burgeon into a major national event. Two months before its climax, attention is growing.
"There has been a lot of interest in the local press recently about the community," Fortin reported. In March, 2000, area resident Ibel Aguilera, in testimony before a Congressional subcommittee, pointed out that a number of south Florida Cuban and Hispanic organizations are following her area's plight with close attention. A majority of "Pariah" residents are Cuban immigrants who have already fled one tyrant's land grab and are resolved to resist further expulsions.
"This thing is going to be huge,"Walley said. "'Overwhelmed' is a vast 'understatement' at this time,"
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