Politics: Let the Rivers Run. Let the Arms Be Twisted

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

Politics: Let the Rivers Run. Let the Arms Be Twisted

Doesn't everybody want to save America's fabled river of grass? On the eve of campaign '96, President Clinton dares the GOP to say no.
By Tom Kizzia

When Al Gore showed up at everglades national park last February to unveil the Clinton administration's blueprint for an ambitious $1.3 billion Everglades restoration project, local environmentalists swooned. thank you, v.p. gore, you have courage and brains, cooed one supporter's placard. For decades greens had pleaded with the federal government to force a cleanup of the Everglades ecosystem, which has been badly polluted and shrunk by chemical runoff from sugar, vegetable, and fruit farms, water diversion for land reclamation, and development. The White House backed a long-term, relatively toothless restoration plan in 1993, but since then things had stalled. So Gore's announcement couldn't have been more welcome.

Of course, it's no coincidence that the White House is coming to the Everglades' rescue after ignoring the issue for so long. "Let me say it this way," confides an administration aide familiar with the project. "The fact that this is an election year isn't the only reason we're supporting this effort. On the other hand, the fact that this is an election year doesn't hurt, either."

In truth, until recently President Clinton had displayed zero interest in the subject. Gore and his staff had been pushing a major new rescue plan for three years, touting it as an urgently needed campaign that, as a bonus, would spruce up Clinton's shaky environmental image. Among Clintonites in the West Wing, though, the issue was considered a sure loser. The president already was taking a beating out West over grazing fees and old-growth forests. Why pick a new fight over a smelly swamp that involves yet another tangle of powerful, competing interests?

One very good reason, as Gore successfully argued, is that a wide swath of voters believe the Everglades is an important national treasure. Now convinced that an Everglades cleanup is popular among both Democrats and Republicans, Clinton's strategists consider it a bomb-proof campaign issue--and one that can be used to embarrass Republicans running against a wide range of environmental protections.

The details of the cleanup plan itself--though still very much on the sketchy side and still facing debate in Congress this session--are impressive. Fifty years ago, with advice and funding from the federal government, Florida began building a series of dikes and levees to divert trillions of gallons of freshwater that flowed into the Everglades each year from Lake Okeechobee. The plan succeeded in controlling floods and turning much "useless" marsh into farmland, but it also touched off a plowing-and-paving rush that has left the Everglades at one-fifth its former size. Worse, the sugar and fruit growers who took over the land spill their irrigation water--thick with phosphorous nitrates, pesticides, and mercury--back into the depleted headwaters of the Everglades. The fertilizer soup spurs a supergrowth of algae, bacteria, and cattails that suffocates the fragile ecosystem. Meanwhile, the dearth of freshwater flowing south is wreaking havoc in the Florida Bay estuary.

The solution? During the next 10 years, the federal government would buy and restore 126,000 acres of the old Everglades--a task that will require dismantling many of the dams and channels that now artificially restrict the northern Kissimmee River, allowing it once again to flow along its natural path into Lake Okeechobee. Using existing channels, the freshwater will then be sluiced to a filtration zone above the Everglades, returning the water that is now diverted east to the Atlantic back into the Everglades.

While the plan isn't a panacea--thousands of acres of marsh will remain unrestored--it's receiving high marks even from Florida's hardest-to-please environmentalists. "This is a tremendous proposal," says Stuart Strahl, director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades Restoration Campaign. "It's exactly what the system needs."

That's good news for alligators, but don't float that view around Florida sugar growers. The plan represents a hurry-up prod to the state's agricultural lobby, which is already vowing to sue if and when Congress, which is expected to take up the issue this summer, passes it. "On this issue," says Tom Kirby, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, "the courts may be our only recourse." Three years ago, under pressure from environmentalists and government officials, sugar farmers reluctantly agreed to pony up $300 million in cleanup funds over 20 years. Gore's plan would squeeze them harder and sooner by pinching a penny from the 18-cent-per-pound subsidy that American sugar growers now receive from federal farm programs--forcing them to pay $250 million over just five years. The federal treasury will kick in about $1 billion more.

Farmers could turn to Florida's Big Sugar- worshiping Republican members of Congress to fight the plan, but that might not help. Given a choice, many congressional Republicans would rather be seen supporting the Everglades than coddling the unpopular sugar lobby, especially since the Everglades mess is harming the state's all-important tourist trade. "It's more than the River of Grass issue," says Representative Porter Goss, a Republican from Sanibel, who points to popular vacation spots like Florida Bay. "The bay is becoming a dead-fish-floating, bad-smell place."

As for the GOP leadership, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has not expressed a desire to derail the plan-in part, say legislative aides, because he doesn't wish to relive last year's ugly battle over the Endangered Species Act, when Republicans misread popular support for environmental protections and had to abandon their plans to gut the program. So, for now, Clinton's effort to put Republicans on the defensive seems to be working. As one aide to a senior House Republican puts it, "Why should we stick our necks out?"

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