Glades gets facelift, Big Cypress gets bruised

Salazar calls new bridge first step in restoration

Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, donned a hard hat and climbed up a wooden ladder Thursday to show off the progress of the world’s largest wetlands restoration effort. This platform at the tip of Everglades National Park is becoming a bridge to nowhere.

Salazar said that the $100 million, one-mile bridge over the wetlands would be completed by 2013. “It’s the first big step in restoring the Everglades,” he said.

The bridge’s purpose is to allow water to flow under the Tamami Trail, the southernmost road crossing Florida from east to west. The construction parallels the Trail, which dams the natural flow of fresh water from north to south. A second, five-mile elevation project further west was approved by Congress last year but without the projected $400 million funding.

“We’re trying to restore the flow back to the place it’s supposed to go,” Salazar said about the World Heritage site. “It is one of the most visited places in the country. Think of the population around here and the water supply for almost eight million people. This is an economic powerhouse for the country.” He was hopeful about purchasing lands north of here to create a new preserve to be called the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.

Full restoration of the Everglades is expected to cost $12 billion. The bridge project is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency that during the 20th century carved the wetlands into canals and other structures that redistributed the flow of water across southern Florida and crippled fragile ecosystems.

Nestor Rivera, the project’s lead engineer, said the bridge was 30 percent done and provided approximately 140 jobs. He said hydrological surveys before and after the project would demonstrate its effect. Behind him, a huge crane lifted concrete slabs and lowered them onto the bridge.

Everglades restoration became law in 2000 and enjoys broad support across a variety of constituents. “In order for us to keep this Everglades restoration going forward, we’re going to need bipartisan support of the members of Congress,” said Salazar, who was joined on site by Congressman David Rivera (R-Fla.) and a slew of environmental journalists attending a conference in Miami.

Salazar was praised as being the first Hispanic to lead the Department of the Interior by Pedro Ramos, the superintendent of Big Cypress National Preserve. “To me personally that means a lot,” said Ramos, who is of Puerto Rican heritage.

Ramos said that the Tamiami Trail was the number one culprit in the “death” of the Everglades. His territory borders Everglades National Park and became the first national preserve in 1974. The 729,000-acre preserve allows more activities than a national park and oil drilling continues by the Collier family at the rate of 750,000 barrels per year.

Last week a lawsuit was filed against the National Park Service because of a controversial plan over the use of off-road vehicles in Big Cypress National Preserve. The suit was filed in Fort Myers by the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog and advocate for parks founded in 1919.

The lawsuit alleges that the park service ignored science and due process for a 147,000-acre section of Big Cypress called Addition Lands. The conservation organization opposes a National Park Service plan that allows off-road vehicles in this section and 130 miles of trails.

“We believe that the National Park Service violated certain laws when they finalized their management plan, specifically the wilderness act and the endangered species and other rules and policies of the National Park Service,’’ said John Adornato, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. He said that preservation should always come first. “In this case, recreation trumps preservation.”

Superintendent Ramos says the lawsuit betrays the hunters and early conservationists who worked to create the preserve. “It shows lack of respect to the people who nearly gave their lives so this place could be for us. That breaks my heart,” said Ramos. “We need to stop bickering about public lands. They are protected.”

Ramos observed that off-road vehicle use has been reduced dramatically in the preserve and that the rise of the endangered Florida panther’s population is concentrated within the preserve. Panthers have increased from a low of 20 decades ago to today’s population of about 150.

Both Ramos and Adornato put aside their differences Thursday afternoon to join the visiting journalists on a walk or “slog” through a submerged cypress forest located around the photography gallery of Clyde Butcher.

“I have a high degree of respect for a lot of the folks that helped Big Cypress become a preserved area,” said Adornato.  The National Parks Conservation Association filed another unresolved lawsuit against Big Cypress in 2007.

Famed black-and-white photographer Butcher said that he has been walking in the preserve since 1984 and has never run across another person. He says that the water is the cleanest in Florida.

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