Everglades' poor stewards

Published May 21, 2007

You can't save the Everglades by destroying its life-giving wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should understand that better than anyone. It is the corps that is charged by law with protecting and restoring the beleaguered River of Grass. Yet it is also the corps that recently reversed itself on a dredge-and-fill permit and will now allow a developer to wipe out 650 acres of wetlands in the western Everglades.

Just 18 months ago, the corps rejected the application for the Mirasol project - 800 homes and two golf courses in Collier County - saying it would have "significant adverse impacts" on Everglades water quality and wildlife. As St. Petersburg Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite reported Friday, the corps changed its mind despite warnings from environmental agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still thinks the Mirasol project raises "concerns, " though it didn't have the courage to veto the permit.

So developer and former coal magnate J.D. Nicewonder can go forward with his ambitious plans, and all he needs to do is remove exotic melaleuca trees from other wetlands he owns nearby. It's not the only thing that doesn't make sense in this deal.

Not long after the corps made its decision, everybody from Sen. Bill Nelson to Gov. Charlie Crist was praising the U.S. Senate for authorizing more than $1.7-billion to complete two major Everglades projects. Guess where $362-million of that money will be spent on "ecosystem restoration." Picayune Strand in Collier County. So the corps allows destruction of the local environment with one hand and restores it with the other.

"All we do is enforce the rules and regulations given to us by Congress, " said David Hobbie, head of the regulatory division for the corps in Florida.

That circular argument leads back to Nelson and others who hypocritically tout their environmental credentials while allowing decisions such as this to be made. It was Nelson's office in 2005 that helped Nicewonder move the permitting process along. Yes, Nelson has pressed Congress to pay its share of Everglades restoration (Florida taxpayers have already put $2-billion into the effort). But he cannot then ignore, much less aid, projects such as Mirasol that threaten the effort. Such contradictions breed cynicism in taxpayers and give lawmakers who say Everglades renewal is a waste of resources another argument to deny the project federal money.

If the corps' decision on wetlands destruction in Collier County is allowed to stand, it will make a mockery of Everglades restoration.