Restoring the 'River of Grass' Everglades project: Ecosystem needs recovery from human pollution, drainage pressures.


THE ABUNDANT natural splendor of the Florida Everglades is a unique national heritage that must be protected, not drained and polluted to support agriculture and development that has pushed this fragile ecosystem to the verge of collapse.

President Clinton's $1.5 billion plan to reclaim 120,000 acres of farmland bordering Everglades National Park and to re-engineer the compromised network of rivers and lakes in South Florida to increase natural freshwater flow is the most ambitious ecological restoration plan in recent history. It is overdue, after years of debate and litigation, accelerating and expanding a state plan enacted two years ago.

The plan is a complex undertaking that, if carried to completion, will test the abilities of man to undo the harm done to nature over this century. As much scientific understanding as money will be needed to accomplish the task.

Most of the money will come from federal and state treasuries, but the sugar industry will be expected to kick in some $300 million in the form of reduced price support subsidies over seven years. The industry is the strongest opposition, especially after it was assessed a third of the $700 million cost of the state's 20-year cleanup plan in 1994.

But even the sugar growers' strongest congressional supporters are signing on to the administration plan, and the penny-per-pound sugar tax: the industry is the prime diverter and polluter of these waters. Tourism, fishing and other non-agricultural enterprises have assumed greater economic importance, and the rapidly growing metro population depends on the natural hydrologic system for its drinking water supply.

The long-range plan needs Congress' approval; it could be reduced in scale and slowed in pace in the budget debate. Yet this proposal's importance as a national environmental commitment is not to be dismissed. The Everglades is at the top of the list of endangered U.S. ecosystems, a fragile environment that not only nurtures unique plants and wildlife and abundant fisheries but is also a vital natural water filtering system.

Everglades National Park of 1.4 million acres was created a half-century ago, but it is only part of the peninsula's large, complex ecosystem. The giant swamp continues to shrink from human pressures and exploitation. Now is the time for restoration, not simply conservation.

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