The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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The approach of Stewart’s top deputy, Richard H. Judy, was somewhat less heavy-handed. At one time an official for the Florida Highway Department, Judy waded into the fray evangelically, as if he were out to convert every last conservationist into a chamber of commerce booster. “This is going to be one of the great population centers of America,” prophesied Judy. “Big Cypress Swamp isjust typical South Florida real estate.” At one point, Judy felt compelled to elevate his cause to Biblical heights. “We will do our best,” he said in a letter to Dade County’s mayor, Chuck Hall, “to meet our responsibilities and the responsibilities of all men to exercise dominion over the land, sea, and air above us as the higher order of man intends.”

Judy’s “higher order” was not necessarily everyman’s, nor every politician’s. When conservationists began to apply some pressure in Washington, the Secretary of the Interior, Walter J. Hickel, barely thawed from his gubernatorial reign in Alaska and still smarting from his confirmation-under-fire (no conservation for conservation’s sake, he had said), flew to the Everglades to have a look for himself. Ostensibly the purpose of Hickel’s visit was to publicize a crackdown on alligator poaching in the park, but behind the scenes he got an earful about the Dade-Collier jetport. What is more, Hickel discovered that Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr., a fellow Republican, was perhaps less than enthusiastic about the Dade County Port Authority’s favored site.

Hickel was good copy, almost as good as the rhetorical overkill being applied by the Port Authority. Concern for the Everglades began to spread well beyond Florida. In quick succession last summer Life, Look , and Business Week , along with Time magazine’s new “Environment” section, turned their editorial guns on the jetport. The New York Times dispatched the Pulitzer Prize reporter Homer Bigart to the scene of the contemplated crime, and the Christian Science Monitor sent its Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Cahn. Audubon magazine led the pack with a stinging indictment of the jetport by Paul Brooks, author of Roadless Area and a past master of demonstrating that the pen is mightier than the slide rule.

Stewart and Judy of the Port Authority refused to give an inch. “We’re going to prove once and for all,” said Judy, “that public projects can be constructed to complement the environment and not destroy it.” Before long, two prominent national agencies were putting Judy’s claim to the test.

First out with its report, in September, was the Environmental Study Group of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. Though it stopped short of labelling the proposed jetport an ecological monster, the study group did raise some grave doubts—not about the welfare of alligators but about the good health of people. The report concluded that development of an international jetport at the Dade-Collier location would pose serious medical problems. “A few passengers each year,” the academicians noted, “will be incubating malaria, dengue fever, filariasis. … The proposed jetport site is surrounded by a swamp that harbors many varieties of mosquitoes … it is possible that mosquitoes in the area could feed on an infected passenger and subsequently pass the disease to the Miccosukee Indians.” But, the report added, if mosquito control were to be pursued with persistent pesticides (as it most surely would be), “this in itself may cause pollution problems … in Everglades National Park.” And to that and similar notes, the academies’ study group added another warning:

Unmodified ecosystems may become as important to ecology as a scientific discipline as primitive tribes have been to anthropology. The midwestern prairies in their original form have completely disappeared as have the virgin forests of the Northeast. The Everglades should not be allowed to go the way of these other environments, which were lost before they were scientifically understood.

Even as the academies’ report was being circulated, the Interior Department released its own. This second study was to have been a co-operative venture with the Department of Transportation, home of the Federal Aviation Administration, which had contributed $663,000 to the jetport training field, but the final draft, hard-hitting and uncompromising in its opposition to the jetport, carried a disclaimer absolving the Transportation Department of any responsibility for the report’s conclusions. It was not difficult for the outsider to understand why. Not only would full development of a commercial jetport and ancillary construction “inexorably destroy the South Florida ecosystem and thus the Everglades National Park,” the Interior report charged, but the training airport itself is “intolerable … because the collateral effects of its use will lead inexorably to urbanization and drainage.”