Transforming America: Everglades Wildlands

By Henry Lamb
for Against the Grain

posted 9/12/03

Whether it's wildfires in the West, or floods in Florida, the consequences of ill conceived land use policy is wreaking havoc in the lives of too many citizens. Until the late 1900s, land use policies were based on principles that included free enterprise, multiple-use of public lands, and private property rights. These principles have given way, first to what has been loosely called, "conservation," principles, and more recently, to what's called "sustainable development."

This "wrenching transformation," as Al Gore described it in Earth in the Balance, has taken land use policy decisions away from local elected officials, and empowered a hierarchy of bureaucrats, and professional stakeholders, who mold policy to achieve an ideological agenda, which is then promoted by willing media and by campaign-fund-seeking politicians who are endorsed by environmental organizations.

Florida has been a high-priority target for transformation by The Wildlands Project. Dr. Reed Noss, author of the plan, says that " at least half of the land area of the 48 conterminous states should be encompassed in core [wilderness] reserves and inner corridor zones...assuming that most of the other 50 percent is managed intelligently as buffer zone."

A center-spread in the Patagonia catalogue in 1993, displayed three maps of Florida. The first map showed only 10 percent of the state in public ownership; the third map, illustrating the state when The Wildlands Project is fully implemented, displayed 90 percent in public ownership, with the remaining 10 percent of private land in the major urban areas.

One of the primary tools to achieve this remarkable transformation is the CERP--the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. None of the agencies involved in the implementation of CERP will admit any relationship to The Wildlands Project. Nevertheless, the result of the CERP will achieve many of The Wildlands Project objectives.

One of the first objectives, is to move people out of the area in order to "restore" the Everglades to its "natural" condition. There is, perhaps, no better example of how land use management principles have been transformed from free enterprise to conservation.

Devastating floods in the early 20th century resulted in a massive federal program that constructed 1,700 miles of canals and levees to control the floods and supply water to more than a half-million acres of newly-created agricultural land. This project was clearly to benefit people engaged in free enterprise.

The rising tide of environmental awareness in the late 20th century blamed the project for "destroying" the Everglades.

Now, six million residents, and nearly 40 million tourists, relay on the flood control system. No restoration plan can be devised that will not adversely affect these people.

Madeleine Fortin lives in an "eight-and -a-half square mile area" of Dade County, along with about 2,000 other residents. As recently as 1989, Congress authorized and appropriated the funds to construct the Modified Water Delivery System and the C-111 Canal. The legislation specifically required the project to protect the private landowners from flooding.

Neither project has been constructed. Rather than protect the private landowners, the Corps of Engineers now want to flood two-thirds of the area. The value of the land has plummeted. Owners who want to sell, cannot sell at a price that will cover their mortgage. Like Fortin, most of the owners don't want to sell. They want the Corps to do what Congress instructed them to do in 1989. But the CERP calls for removal of the people - consistent with the objective of The Wildlands Project.

The CERP consists of 52 projects throughout South Florida. These projects have already flooded 11,000 acres of prime farmland, according to David Kaplan, President of the Dade County Farm Bureau.

In adjacent Collier County, the largest county East of the Mississippi, nearly 87 percent is already in some form of "conservation" protection, according to local resident, Cindy Kemp. What started in 1994 with a plan to acquire 17,888 acres from willing sellers in Southern Belle Meade and Southern Golden Gate, turned into a 55,000 acre acquisition, and resulted in the destruction of roads and filling of canals. But that was just the beginning. Some 200,000 acres are now targeted for removing the people to restore the Everglades.

Throughout the keys, people are being moved out, and prevented from moving in. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was proposed, and local residents said in a referendum that they did not want the Sanctuary. It was imposed anyway. Now "No Entrance" signs block public use of the public lands. Building permits require that mitigation land be purchased and set aside for conservation - by the permitee - as a condition for securing a permit. New FEMA requirements forcing some homeowners to destroy homes that were properly permitted by the County years ago.

CERP is trashing property rights in South Florida, forcing people off their land, transforming the state into a vision The Wildlands Project published nearly 10 years ago.

Trouble brewing in Florida's swamps

The Wildlands Project, published in Wild Earth in 1992, chose a map of Florida to illustrate its concept of core wilderness areas, connected by corridors of wilderness, all surrounded by "buffer zones," managed for "conservation objectives." What are conservation objectives? Reed Noss, author of The Wildlands Project, says "....the collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans....."

The humans who live in South Florida are seeing the needs of non-human populations being given priority over the property rights and livelihoods of the people who live there. The entire Everglades is shown on the Wildlands map as a core wilderness area, surrounded by buffer zones that reach from Miami to Key West.

The initiative was launched by environmentalists who convinced the politicians that the Everglades has been destroyed, and must be restored to save biodiversity in the ecosystem.

Among the organizations that are promoting the restoration project are: The Nature Conservancy, which received more than $136 million in federal grants between 1997 and 2001; the Audubon Society, recipients of $10 million in federal grants during the same period, and the Words Wildlife Fund, which has received more than $70 million in federal grants.

The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society funded the writing of The Wildlands Project, according to its author, Reed Noss.

Politicians, however, depend on votes and money from industry, as well as from environmental organizations, so the plan necessarily included input from the business community.

When the plan finally came together, it was supposed to achieve three equal priorities: expand water supplies for South Florida's exploding population' control water flows and prevent flooding; and provide sufficient water flows to restore the Everglades. This tenuous agreement was the basis on which President Clinton and Governor Jeb Bush launched the $7.8 billion project on December 11, 2000.

From day one, the project was in trouble. While the U.S. Corps of Engineers is the agency with overall responsibility, there are several other federal agencies, state agencies, and county agencies - all with turf to protect, and agendas to advance. Riding herd on all these agencies, is a network of environmental organizations, each with their own interests and agendas. Then comes the powerful industries, that employ people and pay taxes. A the bottom of the list, are the landowners - those who are most directly affected by the restoration plan.

At the moment, everyone is unhappy. The environmentalists are threatening to withdraw support if higher priority is not assigned to Everglades restoration. Scientists within the implementing agencies have no idea whether the plan will work. And the landowners are finally organizing to say enough is enough.

According to an extensive report in the Washington Post, Stuart J. Appelbaum, the Army Corps of Engineer man in charge, says "We have no idea if this will work." The EPA's South Florida Director says of the the project, "It's falling apart before my eyes." And Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bob Gasaway, says "I don't see a shred of evidence that all this money will help the environment."

Shannon Estenoz, an engineer for the World Wildlife Fund, says he is getting angrier by the day, and thinks his organization may have been "suckers" for having supported the CERP.

All these problems with the CERP may be dwarfed by the trouble that is now brewing in the Florida swamp. The landowners are getting tired of seeing their property flooded, or condemned and taken, or devalued by the threat of future projects.

Homeowner associations, property rights groups, and legal defense funds have sprung up all across South Florida. Edmund W. Antonowicz, Secretary of 15,000 Coalition, fired off a letter to President Bush, urging him to step in and prevent the massive land grabs that are going on. Madeleine Fortin's Legal Defense Foundation sued the Corps of Engineers, charging that the Corps lacked legislative authority to condemn land outside the original "footprints" authorized in 1989. A preliminary ruling finds in favor of the the landowners.

These efforts have attracted the attention of the Paragon Foundation in Alamagordo, New Mexico, who sent Jay Walley, to meet with more than 40 representatives of area organizations in Homestead on June 29. The meeting produced a skeletal plan to create a broad coalition to guide a national effort to stop the erosion of private property rights in South Florida, and restore some semblance of sanity to the CERP.

We've had enough!

Who could have guessed that South Florida's swamps would become the staging ground for what is shaping up to be the biggest battle for property rights this country has ever seen? The immediate target is the CERP - The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The bigger target is The Wildlands Project, but the real target is the basis on which land use management regulations are formulated.

The national grassroots plan of action is not limited to the Everglades, but is being constructed to address similar issues in every community. No longer will the environmental organizations go unchallenged. No longer will so-called "stakeholder" councils be dominated by professional environmental organization employees and government agency officials. No longer with the affected landowners be the last to know what others have planned for their land.

Collectively the people of America are saying "We've had enough!" And their voices may be heard the loudest, echoing through the swamps of South Florida.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization and chairman of Sovereignty International.


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