Air Date: Week of December 5, 1997
The billion dollar plan to restore the Everglades is about to meet a challenge. The 400-member Miccosukee Indian tribe, native to the region, is frustrated with the pace of the cleanup effort, and will soon insist that water entering its reservation be cleaner than the state now requires. The tribe's mandate is years ahead of the state's timetable and as Alexis Muellner reports, that's causing concern and conflict in southern Florida.
KNOY: The billion-dollar plan to restore the Everglades is about to meet a challenge. The 400-member Miccosukee Indian tribe, native to the region, is frustrated with the pace of the cleanup effort, and will soon insist that water entering its reservation be cleaner than the state now requires. The tribe's mandate is years ahead of the state's timetable, and, as Alexis Muellner reports, that's causing concern, and conflict, in southern Florida.
JONES: It takes a while to get used to how to maneuver it. The worst thing to get used to is no brakes. (Laughs)
MUELLNER: It's midmorning on Tamiami Trail, a highway that runs along the northern edge of Everglades National Park. F.K. Jones, Fish and Wildlife Director for the Miccosukee Indian tribe, maneuvers his air boat into a canal and cranks up the engine.
JONES: You ready? Contact.
(An engine starts up, noisily)
MUELLNER: Within minutes we're cutting through tall saw grass, chasing coots and snail kites from their roosts. Then Jones cuts the power to the giant propeller and stops on Big Hammock Island, a sacred tribal ground that sits smack in the middle of the Everglades.
(Footfalls through tall grass)
JONES: This is one of my favorite spots. Very quiet.
MUELLNER: Once a homicide detective in nearby Monroe County, these days Jones draws attention to what some people call the murder of the Everglades. He speaks with urgency about the tribe's effort to set higher water quality standards here.
JONES: It's got to be done now. The sooner the better. Because it's going to take a long time for the Everglades to heal itself, shall we say, from the input of all the nutrients that's come down, and the pollution.
MUELLNER: The main problem, Jones says, is phosphorus, a fertilizer that runs off the vast sugar and tomato farms up north. When it enters the Everglades, phosphorus stimulates the growth of certain aquatic plants. Soon, smelly, thick stands of cattails replace native grasses. They rob the water of oxygen, threaten fish populations, and disrupt the food chain.
JONES: Cattails are expanding yearly. You can definitely see the expansion of them. They're getting bigger, healthier looking, and more. And once you get a dense stand of cattails you can't get anything else growing in there.
MUELLNER: It's been 3 years since Florida passed the Everglades Forever Act, which sets timetables and costs for the massive restoration project. The blueprint calls for a reduction of phosphorus to 50 parts per billion, but that's 5 times the level the tribe wants to see in the water. So, exercising their right as a sovereign nation, the Miccosukees plan to restrict the level of phosphorus entering their reservation to 10 parts per billion. Gene Duncan, the tribe's water resources director, says the action is needed because of vague and unenforced state standards.
DUNCAN: What we're attempting to do is set a standard at our northern boundary, which will protect against that type of nutrient encroachment and that destruction of the environment. The laws are on the books today. They can be enforced today. Since the state has failed to do that, we're going to set standards we will do that.
MUELLNER: And if the tribe sets standards more stringent than the state's, Florida may be forced to rewrite its entire Everglades cleanup plan. That could further delay the project already hobbled by cost overruns and litigation.
(A gathering of voices echoing)
MUELLNER: Beth Ross, an attorney for the South Florida Water Management District, tried to impress that point upon tribal leaders while defending the state's Everglades restoration plan at a recent public meeting.
ROSS: And sure, I understand it's slower than the tribe would want. And you question, I think, the state's commitment to Everglades. But we have to counter all of the desires for restoration with the realities of an extremely complex world that we live in now. It's not a simple place. To get a project of this magnitude up and running is extraordinary.
MUELLNER: But the state's cleanup process has long been criticized by environmentalists and others who call it a sellout to polluters and a violation of the Federal Clean Water Act. And they worry that even the stricter standards the Miccosukees plan to impose may be too little, too late. Ron Jones is a water quality expert at Florida International University, who's been watching the build up of phosphorus in the Everglades.
JONES: We're going to have that damage for hundreds if not a thousand years or more. You know, I mean, this is going to be out there. Phosphorus, once it gets in the system it just stays. So, the only thing that we can do by adapting sort of a non- degradation standard and say no further degradation, but it's not necessarily going to it will start the reversal process, but the reversal process is going to take many lifetimes to see it unfold. This is the kind of standard that's necessary.
MUELLNER: This isn't the first time the tribe has attempted to speed up the cleanup process. It is still litigating a 1988 lawsuit filed against the state for not enforcing its own water quality standards. The tribe has another half dozen unsettled legal actions related to the Everglades restoration. Again, Gene Duncan, Water Resources Director for the Miccosukee tribe.
DUNCAN: Maybe, it was an honest mistake on their part when they passed the Everglades Forever Act, that they didn't realize they were not enforcing their own water quality standards. I find that hard to believe, since we told them that they weren't. But maybe they will change the Everglades Forever Act. Maybe they will back out of the deal they have with powerful political entities that control agriculture. We'll see.
MUELLNER: Back on Big Hammock Island, wildlife officer F.K. Jones continues his pollution inspection and notes an irony. Early in the 19th century, during the Seminole Indian wars, the Miccosukees found refuge in these thickets while eluding Andrew Jackson and the US Army. Today, pollution from the north and the invasive plants it spawns are the enemies the tribe hopes to escape.
(Footfalls through tall grasses)
JONES: A year ago there was no cattails growing here. And that's how quick they can come in.
MUELLNER: The Miccosukee tribe is expected to start enforcing the new water quality standards in its Everglades reservation within weeks. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.
(Footfalls; fade to music up and under)
KNOY: Trees falling in the woods of Nova Scotia have a band of normally quiet hermits speaking out. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.
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