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The Sway of Cattails and Politics

A Florida law that alters water-purity rules could determine the fate of the Everglades, as well as the outcome of local and national elections.

August 23, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

THE EVERGLADES, Fla. — From the helicopter flying at 500 feet, the intruder is soon visible: a fringe of cattails, undulating lazily in the hot breeze of a Florida summer's midday.

For Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer on the chopper, the lush, densely packed plants stretching in a bright green smudge alongside the L-7 Borrow Canal are an unwelcome sight. They are a noxious force, as well as a warning that this expanse of Florida's vast, watery wilderness is ill.

Cattails, Goforth says over the crackling intercom, suck up oxygen, block sunlight and hinder the growth of fish, crayfish and wading birds. In parts of the already badly shrunken Everglades, says the Texas-born official of the South Florida Water Management District, the alien vegetation has been altering the "fundamental building blocks" of nature.

Hundreds of miles separate the monotonously flat, sun-washed interior of Palm Beach County from the corridors of power in Washington and Tallahassee, Florida's capital. But what transpires here and in the rest of the Everglades in the months to come could have great consequences for multibillion-dollar plans to undo damage done by humans to the environment, as well as for state and national politics.

This spring, nine years after passage of a landmark state law -- the Everglades Forever Act -- designed to reverse decades of devastation to southern Florida's landscape and animal life, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law changing the rules on how cleanliness of water flowing into the great marsh will be measured.

The new state law was stridently opposed by environmentalists, a federal judge, members of Florida's congressional delegation and even some in Bush's own Republican Party. Opponents call it a virtual license for Florida's sugar barons to keep discharging polluting farm residue into the Everglades for 10 more years.

Runoff from the cane fields, overly high in phosphorus, is a major agent in the disruption of a fragile natural equilibrium established over millennia. Phosphorous-loving cattails fester, and habitat and food sources for wood storks, great blue herons, ibises and other species are choked off, experts say.

"It is not a suitable environment for wildlife," said Rick Cook, public affairs officer at Everglades National Park, the country's only subtropical preserve, which spans the Florida peninsula at its southern tip. "It's almost impenetrable, even to airboats going in for research purposes."

The issue of waterborne nutrients and their effects on these remote wetlands at first glance seems arcane, or of concern only to ecological zealots. But for many people in Florida, protecting the Everglades is tantamount to a sacred trust.

In this state, "you can't be seen as supportive of environmental destruction," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor and political scientist at Florida State University. Among voters here, deHaven-Smith said, the governor and President Bush "are really seen as one person," and if Gov. Bush appears hostile to the Everglades, it could hurt the president in his reelection bid next year.

The new Everglades law has already engendered a stack of furious newspaper editorials and roiled public opinion. Nathaniel P. Reed, an assistant secretary of the federal Interior Department in two Republican administrations, accused Gov. Bush and lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Legislature of caving in to demands from sugar companies, among the most generous sources of political donations in Florida.

"They failed to understand there would be an uproar throughout the state," Reed said.

Bush has counterattacked by saying opponents of the law are more motivated by politics than science, and by reiterating his commitment to saving the Everglades. But in the face of widespread and mounting criticism, he pushed amendments to the new law through the Legislature in June.

As for the companies that grow about 20% of America's sugar on black muckland south of Lake Okeechobee, one executive said they were doing their utmost to be environmental good neighbors, and that their foes didn't understand the stringent demands made on them by the new legislation.

"There is no group more motivated than the farming community to having the water that leaves our farming region contribute to a healthy Everglades," said Jorge Dominicis, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp., a major sugar producer.

For Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Florida author and environmentalist who died in her sleep at age 108 in 1998, the Everglades were the shimmering, unparalleled "River of Grass," a unique, fragile treasure to be preserved and cherished by all Americans. No other landscape on the North American continent is like it, biologists and wildlife experts say.

Southward from Lake Okeechobee, a meandering river flows, 50 miles wide and no more than 2 or 3 feet deep. Its water, once purer than the rain, has become over the last 5,000 years the warm and liquid medium for an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

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