An ambitious $8 billion plan to restore the Florida Everglades to ecological health over the next several decades is coming under fire from experts who say the proposed measures will actually do little in the way of restoration.
The main reason, these critics say, is that the federal-state plan does not go far enough in re-establishing the natural flow of shallow water that once moved in an unbroken sheet down the South Florida peninsula, creating a habitat for one of the world's largest assemblages of marsh wildlife.
Instead, they say, the project would leave the Everglades much as they are now: a series of disconnected fragments dependent less on natural processes and more on human management involving a complex system of levees, canals, pumps, gates and reservoirs.
"There is very little restoration, and most of it doesn't come for the next 25 years," said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who has worked extensively in the Everglades.
Pimm and five other front-rank ecologists recently sent a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, asking him to submit the plan for review by scientists who have not been involved in formulating it, possibly under the auspices of the National Research Council.
Some of the signers, including Pimm, are to meet with Babbitt in Washington today to discuss their concerns. The secretary is expected to announce then that a permanent, independent scientific panel was being established to provide continuing evaluation of the restoration project. An Interior Department spokesman said the panel had been planned for some time.
"From the very beginning, there has been an extremely strong commitment to science in this effort," said Patricia Beneke, an Interior Department assistant secretary. "This is the opportunity of a generation."
She added, "We're working very hard to do it and do it right."
The Everglades plan, a major element of the Clinton administration's environmental agenda, is the most comprehensive ecological restoration ever attempted in the United States. Its basic outline is being put into final form and is to be submitted to Congress in July.
Many of the program's supporters fear that delay occasioned by further review might disrupt a considerable amount of the hard-won political momentum behind the proposal.
In the end, the ecologists said in their letter to Babbitt, a scientific review "might confirm the plans as the only ones that are practicable." But if not, they said, it is better to find out now, before billions of dollars are committed.
The letter follows earlier reservations about the plan's likely effectiveness expressed by scientists of the National Park Service.
Besides Pimm, signatories of the letter, dated Jan. 28, were Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University; Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University; Gary Meffe of the University of Florida and Gordon Orians of the University of Washington.
"We take very seriously what they say," said Michael Davis, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army under whose supervision the Corps of Engineers falls. The corps, along with the Interior Department, is leading the restoration effort at the federal level.
The Everglades today are about half the size they were a century ago, and what remains has been divided into compartments separated by levees. Canals draw off water for agriculture and urban use, and to protect South Florida from floods. Every year, hundreds of billions of gallons are pumped into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The plan so far is on a broad, conceptual scale, with details still to be worked out. Federal officials say that many of the issues raised by critics will be addressed in that phase.
Pub Date: 2/22/99