Disaster in the Everglades...

Rural America Under Siege

By Madeleine Fortin
for eco-logic

I live in what is called the "8.5 Square Mile Area" by government agencies. I call my community Pariah, Florida. It lies along the eastern edge of Everglades National Park. Several thousand people live here. For the most part, they're Cuban. They came here from Cuba because they believed that they would be treated with fairness and honesty by our democratic government. Little did they know what was going to happen to them.

The community is made up of small, family-owned farms and ranches. Most farms are five to ten acres in size. Over half the land in the community is used for some form of commercial agricultural production. We produce tropical fruit and winter vegetables, herbs, cut flowers and honey. People have plant nurseries. They raise pigs, goats, horses and chickens.

The area has been granted flood protection by Congress on three separate occasions, but because of radical environmentalists hiding in state and federal government agencies, my community has been flooded unmercifully since 1994 in an effort to force people to become "willing sellers."

In the process of flooding us, the government agencies involved in "restoring" the Everglades have managed to flood the entire Miami-Dade County area twice, in a one year period. So far, there has been at least $1 billion in flood related losses and 14 flood related deaths throughout the urban and agricultural areas of the county. The agricultural community in the southern part of the County is literally on its knees. Fifty-year-old avocado and mango groves are dead. To the government, these farmers are just more "willing sellers."

Flooding has destroyed my community's way of life. Over half the 55 miles of unpaved roads in the community are no longer passable to regular vehicles. Year after year, people have lost crops, orchards and livestock. The flooding is not a natural event-it has been engineered by the government agencies that are supposed to be "restoring the Everglades." As one man who was forced by the flooding to become a "willing seller" said at a public meeting, "You use water as a weapon of terror!" Another man told me just before he sold his home to the government, "They've slaughtered the American Dream."

In 1989, Congress passed the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act. This Act told the park it could buy up all the vacant land in Northeast Shark River Slough. It also told the Corps of Engineers to do two things: provide the park with a more natural hydrologic regime, and to protect the communities that would be impacted by this. The exact legislative language reads,
"The Secretary of the Army is authorized and directed to construct a flood protection system to protect the developed land within such area."
(PL 101-229, Section 104, paragraph 2c)
"The Secretary of the Army is authorized and directed to construct a flood protection system to protect the developed land within such area." (PL 101-229, Section 104, paragraph 2c)

The Corps developed the Modified Water Delivery Project to do what Congress had ordered. This project was Congressionally approved and fully federally funded in 1992. How could they screw this up?

In 1994, all forward movement on our little flood protection canal stopped. It seemed the park wanted a "buffer zone." In the years since then, the Corps has developed a "compromise alternative" which puts a canal up the most populated street in the community. This leaves half of the community unprotected and costs over three times as much as the original project.

The Corps doesn't even have Congressional authority to condemn land outside the footprint of the original project, and funding for the project is uncertain. In the process of choosing this "compromise" solution, the Corps, along with its allies, the National Park Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Corps local sponsor, the South Florida Water Management District, has committed fraud, violated NEPA, abused the Endangered Species Act, committed numerous violations of its own administrative procedures and wasted over $15 million in tax money-all in an effort to take our homes and farms away from us!

Now the Corps of Engineers is saying they will begin bulldozing homes in September! September 11 would be an appropriate date, don't you think? Democracy isn't just under siege from foreign terrorists-our own government is destroying it!

It's bad enough for the government to do this to us, but in the process of holding up completion of the Modified Water Delivery Project, the involved agencies are unable to release water into the park in the volumes necessary for ecosystem functioning. Rather than let the excess water out to tide, the water is being stockpiled in the state-owned Everglades north of the park.

This has turned the area into an inland sea. More than half the tree islands are dead, and endangered species are being impacted. Because of the hydrology of the area, water stockpiled above the surface in one place will soak into the ground and raise the ground-water throughout the County. When there is a heavy rainstorm, the water has nowhere to go, and the entire County floods. The agricultural area just south of my community has been devastated by the flooding.

It seems that all over the United States, rural communities are under siege. Excessive regulation in the name of "preserving the environment" prevents reasonable use of our land, while unfair trade treaties flood our markets with cheap foreign produce. Small rural communities are often poor, sparsely populated and politically powerless. How can we protect ourselves from the actions of our own government? Perhaps if other communities like mine can band together, we can make our voices heard in Washington.

Some thoughts on the Fourth of July

This evening, like many Americans, I went to a fireworks display. It was a lavish, beautiful event. One group in the crowd burst into a spirited rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance (shouting the phrase "one nation under God"), then they sang the National Anthem. If they only knew....

As I drove home, I thought about what is happening to my community. Before I moved into my house on the eastern edge of the Everglades, I really believed that our government was democratic. I believed what I had been taught in civics class. Now I know that it isn't true. America is no longer a democracy and our elected officials are no longer in charge of the government.

Instead, the government is being run by lobbyists, consultants and lawyers representing special interest groups. In the case of my community, the special interest groups are the radical environmental organizations.

I began my fight against government acquisition six years ago, by writing letters to the involved government agencies, especially the Corps of Engineers. I was so hopeful! I struggled for days over each letter. I thought if only I could find the right words, relate the situation in the right way, someone would see the injustice being done to my community, and put a stop to it. Now I know that what ordinary citizens say doesn't matter to anyone.

Your words only have meaning if you can make large campaign contributions to a political party or if you are an important person in a group that can deliver thousands of votes to a particular candidate. The words of ordinary citizens mean nothing, even if you're telling the truth.

As I drove up the one mile stretch of almost impassable road to my house, I cried as I passed the abandoned homes of people who sold their farms and ranches to the government because they were too afraid, too tried of the constant flooding, to fight. Now these houses are abandoned. Many of them have been stripped and left as empty shells.

I cried as I passed the lots that used to contain farms and ranches that were bulldozed after the government acquired them from "willing sellers." Now these farms are nothing but plots of weeds and brush that almost completely block what's left of the road to my home. I can't tell you how it felt to sit in my house and hear the bulldozers destroying these homes and farms, bulldozers paid for with my own tax money.

The government is waging a war of attrition against my community.

Our only crime is living in our homes and farming our land. We built these homes with permits given to us by the county government and we paid taxes on these farms and ranches for years. Congress ordered the Corps of Engineers to provide my community with flood protection, but it looks like Congress is no longer in control of its federal agencies. There is no environmental benefit to be derived by the destruction of my community, but that doesn't seem to matter to anyone.

Democracy isn't just under siege from foreign terrorists, it's under siege right here at home, from special interest groups like the radical environmentalists who can buy access to the "democratic" process. If it wasn't for the pro bono legal assistance provided by the law firm of Hunton & Williams, my community would already be destroyed. It's a hell of a thing when a small, helpless community has to have a legal defense team to protect it from the illegal actions of its own government! Please pray for us.


Madeleine Fortin is President of The 8.5 Square Mile Area Legal Defense Foundation, 21801 SW 152 Street, Miami, FL 33187, phone: 305-255-7098.

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