Everglades uproar brings change

A Senate hearing looks at how a U.N. list was altered.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published September 20, 2007

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has changed its procedures for trying to remove U.S. sites from a United Nations list of endangered special places after the Everglades was struck from the list this summer, a State Department official said.

Gerald Anderson, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, made the statement at a hearing held Wednesday by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., into how and why the Bush administration asked the U.N. World Heritage Committee to remove the Everglades from its list of endangered environmental sites.

Anderson told Nelson, the chairman and lone senator at the hearing, that the American delegation to the U.N. committee now must consult with officials at the State and Interior departments in Washington before pushing to have a site removed from the list.

"We've assessed the reaction to the decision, and we understand there are some concerns that need to be addressed," said Anderson, who admitted to being surprised that the Everglades was removed.

At a meeting in New Zealand in July, Todd Willens, a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, persuaded the World Heritage Committee to take the Everglades off the list, despite recommendations to the contrary by the National Park Service and the committee's science advisers.

Proponents of leaving it on the list said the Everlgades, which is undergoing a multibillion-dollar, yearslong federal and state restoration, had not met the standards for removal. A May draft of the American position showed the delegation recommended keeping the Everglades on the list. But once in New Zealand, a word in the last line of the document was changed from "retain" to "remove."

The U.N. committee unanimously complied.

At Nelson's hearing, Willens defended his decision on grounds that the United States is moving toward restoration. The list is meant to catalog sites in countries that have not yet demonstrated a commitment to preserving them, he said.

An investigator for the Government Accountability Office said only two of nine benchmarks for the Everglades have been met. Four more should be complete in two to five years, and four more should be finished in eight to 25 years, she said. Meanwhile, costs and delays keep mounting.

Nelson said he wants Willens fired, something the Interior Depatment is unlikely to do. He fretted that any false suggestion that the Everglades is healthy, such as its removal from the U.N. endangered list, could sap political support for continuing the cleanup.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or 202 463-0577.