The Bitter Struggle For A National Park


By some accounts, then, Everglades National Park itself is being crushed in its l.4-million-acre entirety and may soon be a terminal case. On the one hand, there is agriculture, pressing in from the north and east. On the other, along the coastal ridge between Miami and Palm Beach and in Collier County on the Gulf, urbanization and increasing population are placing new stresses on the region’s resources.

With a population well in excess of six million, Florida now ranks ninth in the nation. Its net growth since 1950 has been an amazing 119 per cent. In fact, it is growing at a faster rate than California. Collier County has almost doubled its population in just nine years, and the combined population of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties now approaches two million. The Florida Development Commission is delighted with these figures. In one brochure the commission proudly points out that Florida’s population density is ill people per square mile, “as compared to 55 for the United States.” And that, adds the commission, does not take into account the 600,000 out-of-staters vacationing in Florida on any given day. In one sense, the tourists are as essential to the economy of the Sunshine State as water is to the ecology of the park. “Come on down!” the ads for weekends in Miami once declared. Now bumper stickers try a new approach: “Help keep our state green—bring money.”


What might well bring the most money (if not the “green”) to South Florida is the Bade County Port Authority’s plan to build an international jetport large enough to swallow the four biggest airports in America. The authority’s favored thirty-nine-square-mile site in the Big Cypress Swamp was quietly purchased in 1968, and by last fall part of it had been turned into a training facility. Though the site lies at its nearest point a full six miles from the northern boundary of Everglades National Park, its development into a jetport would very likely have contaminated the water entering the park from the Big Cypress watershed. Forty per cent of the park’s overland water is supplied by this watershed. The Dade plan has generated more notoriety, more conservationist ire, and more concern about environmental values than any single public works project conceived in this nation, anywhere, at any time. As this article goes to the printer, the jetport in this site is dead, or mostly dead; but conservationists know that schemes so large, and so full of profit potential, often come back to life. Consider the size of it:

For openers, the Port Authority announced that its jetport would be served by a one-thousand-foot-wide “transportation corridor” paralleling the Tamiami Trail from Miami on the Atlantic Ocean to Naples on the Gulf. The corridor would encompass, it was hoped, a new U.S. interstate highway, a high-speed, air-cushion-ride transit system, and perhaps even another canal, a “recreational waterway” for hydrofoils and airboats. And finally, as the jetport grew, commercial and residential development would gather about the fringe of the site, generating all kinds of benefits to both Dadeand Collier counties, the common boundary of which would be straddled by the jetport. By the year 2000, if one were to take the authority seriously, the site would have been ready to assume its manifest destiny as a spaceport for commercial rocket launching and recoveries, a sort of Cape Kennedy-by-the-Cypress.

Alligators make nice shoes and pocketbooks

Such schemes, not surprisingly, soon engaged the wrath of the nation’s leading conservation organizations, and in particular the National Audubon Society, whose notable history in defense of the Everglades traces back to 1902, when the forerunner of the present society hired wardens to protect the egret rookeries from plume hunters. In a well known 1967 joust with the Army engineers, the society went to court to stop the corps from opening up Canal III and thus letting salt water into a vital fresh-water area of the park. It seems only proper, therefore, that the most dedicated and effective conservationist in the jetport fight has been the National Audubon Society’s southeastern representative, Joseph Browder. And as the opposition flared, so did the tempers of the jetport’s chief proponents. “Alligators make nice shoes and pocketbooks,” said Michael O’Neil, Florida’s Transportation Secretary, when asked by reporters about complaints thatthejetport might destroy the ecological balance of Everglades National Park. “I’m not really concerned about the alligators,” O’Neil added. “And I don’t miss seeing the dinosaur either.” The director of the Port Authority, Alan C. Stewart, lumped all Everglades species together as “yellow-bellied sapsuckers” and went on to promise conservationists that he would build them an astrodome for butterfly chasing at the new jetport. His attacks on the opposition caused one wag to label him the “fastest lip in the East” and his superior to censure him for being “arrogant and offensive.”