Nelson wants official fired for Glades move

The senator says the park still faces danger.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 3, 2007

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson plans to convene federal hearings into why Everglades National Park was taken off a United Nations environmental "danger" list at a time when restoration of the River of Grass has faltered.

He also wants the Bush administration official who pushed for the Everglades' removal from the list to be fired for going against the recommendations of scientists.

Nelson, D-Fla., sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, blasting the Everglades move by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens as "overreaching and inappropriate. ... This action is unacceptable and, I believe, warrants his removal."

Kempthorne was traveling and had not seen the letter, a spokeswoman said. Meanwhile, Willens, a former congressional aide who was hired for his Interior Department post in the fall, said he welcomes Nelson's scrutiny.

"I have nothing to hide," he said.

A month ago, Willens persuaded the United Nations' World Heritage Committee to take the Everglades off its list of sites that are in danger from various threats.

This week, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Willens took that step despite findings by the National Park Service and the committee's science advisers that the Everglades had not yet met the requirements for being taken off the list.

"We said it should stay on the danger list because further work needed to be done," said David Sheppard, who serves as the U.N. committee's top science adviser. He is the head of the Programme on Protected Areas for the Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

However, "the head of the U.S. delegation made the comment that it should come off (the list) because of the progress they had made," and the committee went along with that.

Everglades National Park's top scientist said politics drove the decision.

"There's always been a kind of pressure from the Washington level to say, 'Okay, we've got a plan, now take us off the list,' " said Robert Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at the park since 1995. "I think for the Bush administration, it was seen as a black eye to be on that list."

Being taken off the list "gives people the impression that things are going well," when the restoration is actually decades away from achieving its goals, Johnson said.

In his letter, Nelson said knocking the Everglades off that U.N. list "could jeopardize ongoing federal efforts to save this national treasure."

The senator noted that Congress is about to pass the first bill in seven years that would provide new federal funding for restoring the Everglades - and President Bush has vowed to veto it.

The $20-billion bill, which also includes money for repairing the damage done by Hurricane Katrina two years ago, is too expensive, Bush administration officials said this week.

Since 2000, all the work on repairing the River of Grass has been paid for by Florida taxpayers. As a result, some parts of the restoration project have fallen six years behind schedule, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

Jonathan Ullman, the Sierra Club's Everglades field representative, said Willens was simply following the Bush administration's usual pattern with the Everglades.

"This administration has always treated the Everglades as a photo op, but they never really did protect the Everglades," Ullman said. Willens has been in the job less than a year, and "he already sold the Everglades down the river."

The World Heritage Committee has listed the Everglades as endangered since 1993, when it was beset with threats from encroaching development, water pollution and damage from Hurricane Andrew.

Johnson, the Everglades National Park scientist, said his staff had spent months crafting benchmarks that should be met for the park to be taken off the danger list. Some would not be achieved for years - but that wasn't mentioned when the UN committee convened in New Zealand in late June.

Willens said it wasn't a political decision to take the Everglades off the list, and in fact it wasn't even his idea.

He said representatives from Canada, Japan, India and Spain wanted to remove the Everglades because the United States agreed seven years ago to spend billions of dollars fixing the park. Rather than let another country make a motion regarding the only U.S. site on the danger list, he took the initiative, he said.

In an interview last week, Willens said that when the time came to deliver the U.S. report, "I changed the last sentence of our report and said we wanted to be taken off."

On Thursday, he clarified that he did not change the wording of any scientific reports, just the statement he was giving to the U.N. committee.

Willens said he did not take that step alone.

"The decision was a collaborative decision with the Park Service when we were there," he said. He said he also consulted with State Department personnel.

Until October, Willens was a top aide to former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a frequent critic of environmental laws. Nelson's letter noted that while working for Pombo, Willens took a trip overseas sponsored by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.