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National and State Politics Help Safeguard a Swamp
New York Times ^ | By BLAINE HARDEN

Posted on 04/03/2002 1:53:11 AM PST by JohnHuang2

National and State Politics Help Safeguard a Swamp


BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Fla., March 29 — In this fragile swath of the Everglades, the Bush administration delighted Florida environmentalists two weeks ago by backing a National Park Service plan to restrict access for swamp buggies and other off-road vehicles.

In Yellowstone National Park, by contrast, the administration has infuriated environmentalists and many park rangers by abandoning a Park Service plan to ban snowmobiles.

Here in Big Cypress, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton promised in January to try to stop oil exploration by buying out drilling rights or acquiring them in a land swap. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and on some national monument land in the West, however, President Bush continues to push oil exploration as an important part of his energy plan.

What explains the seemingly anomalous attention being paid to this vast swamp? Political analysts in Florida and national environmental groups say the explanation boils down to two words: green votes. Enough green votes, perhaps, to allow Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, to win re-election this year. Enough, possibly, to allow President Bush, whose first term was won in Florida, to win a second term.

The all-but-even Florida presidential vote in 2000 pointed to a precarious balance in this state between Republicans and Democrats, a balance that has in recent years produced some exceptionally tight statewide elections.

Polls here have consistently found that environmental issues greatly influence voters, especially swing ones.

"Big Cypress is one of those Florida issues that a politician cannot allow himself to be perceived as being on the wrong side of and still win a statewide election," Dr. Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said. "Elections here are almost always so close that if you alienate voters who care about the environment, you will probably lose."

A spokesman for the Interior Department said federal decisions regarding Big Cypress were not motivated by politics.

"Good policy is what we are seeking," said the spokesman, Eric Ruff, noting that Congress had ordered the protection of the Everglades. "It has been a priority for Secretary Norton and the president since the first day we came into office."

But in explaining the difference between administration rulings for Big Cypress and Yellowstone, Mr. Ruff acknowledged that the vocal demands of local interests did play a role.

"The policy is a reflection of what the local communities want," he said. "Those gateway communities at Yellowstone are seeking the use of snowmobiles. But at Big Cypress, the locals have made it very clear what their opinions are."

In Yellowstone, where snowmobile manufacturers and users sued over a park ban on the vehicles proposed under President Bill Clinton, the Bush administration settled the suit, scuttled the ban and announced alternatives that included keeping snowmobiles. The Interior Department also ordered additional study of the issue. Four previous reviews found that snowmobiles harmed wildlife and air quality in the park.

In Big Cypress, the Bush administration has been far less sympathetic toward owners of off-road vehicles who demand access to public land. The Justice Department filed a brief on March 15 in Federal District Court in Fort Myers that rejects as "unpersuasive" the access arguments of the users of swamp buggies. The users had sued over the Park Service plan to keep off-road vehicles out of most of the swamp.

"Snowmobiles in Yellowstone arouse the interest of a national environmental audience, but they are not a defining political issue in states or regions near the park," said Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, a group chartered by Congress to advocate park preservation. "Florida and the Everglades are different. It has taken the administration nearly a year, but they seem to have figured out the politics of environmentalism in South Florida."

What makes the administration's actions at Big Cypress especially noteworthy is the swamp's relatively unprotected status under federal law. It is not a national park, like Yellowstone, a designation that affords the greatest possible protection. Rather, Big Cypress is a national preserve, a designation that permits multiple uses like fishing, hunting and, under certain conditions, mineral exploration.

A demonstration of the administration's regard for Big Cypress occurred in January, after Ms. Norton was confronted by sign-waving protesters while touring the Everglades.

Two days before she arrived, the Park Service office in Big Cypress disclosed that the Interior Department was considering plans for new oil and gas exploration in the 729,000-acre preserve. A family owned company, Collier Resources, which owns mineral rights in the preserve, wanted to use seismic explosions and build roads as part of its exploratory plan.

The announcement apparently caught Ms. Norton off guard, as did the protests and headlines in southern Florida newspapers. Forty percent of the water that flows to the sea through the Everglades drains through Big Cypress.

Later in her visit, Ms. Norton unexpectedly announced that her department was trying to acquire mineral rights in the preserve. Her spokesman explained later that the department had been negotiating privately for about a year to buy or swap for the rights and that it wanted to stop all exploration.

The rights are generally estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Nine wells are already in operation.

Although some Florida politicians and environmentalists said they were skeptical of Ms. Norton's ability and willingness to follow up on her promise, others greeted her announcement with enthusiasm.

"The Bush people are clearly moving in the right direction," said Dr. Stuart D. Strahl, Florida director of the National Audubon Society.

The Bush administration's involvement in Florida environmental politics began in earnest last summer. In an exception to its national energy strategy, Washington sharply reduced its plan to drill for oil and gas off the western Florida coast.

The plan for widespread offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico had upset environmentalists, caused splits in the Florida Republican Party and put Mr. Bush's brother in a difficult position.

"Jeb Bush was shocked by the political damage caused by the president's plans for offshore drilling," Dr. deHaven-Smith of Florida State said. "In this state, offshore drilling is a no-compromise political issue."

Administration officials acknowledged last year that the decision to back off in Florida reflected the president's effort to get out of a political quandary.

Outside Florida, environmentalists have rarely been pleased with administration policies on public lands, either for oil exploration or for off-road vehicles.

Interior officials have said they want to allow limited access for dune buggies and other off-road vehicles in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in the far southeastern corner of California, for example, in defiance of a ban from the Clinton era. California has many green votes, but it is not a state, political analysts say, that Republicans are likely to win in the next presidential election.

In southern Utah this year, over the objections of some park rangers and government scientists, petroleum companies have been allowed to search for oil on federal land between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Here at Big Cypress, however, the chief Park Service official said he could not be happier with the support from Washington.

"We have had an honest hearing from the administration, and so far, they have sided with us on the big issues," said John Donahue, the superintendent of the preserve.

Mr. Donahue's continued presence as superintendent, in fact, is seen by some environmental groups as testimony to the administration's reluctance to risk angering Floridians. As he acknowledges, Mr. Donahue annoyed Ms. Norton in January, when his office announced the possibility of expanded oil exploration two days before her visit.

At the time, the press here reported that Mr. Donahue might be transferred or fired. Ms. Norton's spokesman said those reports were "patently untrue."

Referring to the gouged tracks that swamp buggies have made in Big Cypress — marks that he said are visible from space — Mr. Donahue said Washington was showing good sense in curbing the machines.

"The damage that these off-road vehicles do in Big Cypress is not deniable by anybody," he said, "regardless of what your political philosophy is."

Great Lakes Cleanup Planned

MUSKEGON, Mich., April 2 (AP) — Christie Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, visited this city on Lake Michigan today to announce a plan to clean up and restore the Great Lakes. She said the plan addressed the most serious problems facing the lakes like sediment contamination, the proliferation of non-native species, the loss of habitat and the production of fish unsafe for eating.

The plan sets specific cleanup goals and calls on the federal government to work more closely with state and local governments. It includes monitoring contaminants in fish, requiring factories that discharge into the lakes to limit contaminants, enlisting cooperation from corporations and tracking cleanup efforts by state and local agencies.

No additional government financing has been set aside for the plan, which was created by the Great Lakes U.S. Policy Committee, a partnership among federal, state and tribal agencies.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; News/Current Events; Politics/Elections; US: Florida
KEYWORDS: energylist; enviralists
Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Quote of the Day by PoisedWoman 4/3/02

1 posted on 04/03/2002 1:53:11 AM PST by JohnHuang2
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To: *Enviralists;*Energy_list
Check the Bump List folders for articles related to and descriptions of the above topic(s) or for other topics of interest.
2 posted on 04/03/2002 7:48:50 AM PST by Free the USA
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