The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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Compiled by a team under the direction of Luna B. Leopold, senior hydrologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior report projected, at full development, a jetport that would service one million landings and take-offs a year and give rise to a residential-commercial community of 150,000 people. Such a jetport community would, according to the Leopold team, produce a few inevitable by-products: four million gallons of sewage and 1.5 million gallons of industrial wastes each day; ten thousand tons of jet-engine air pollutants scattered annually across the Big Cypress-Everglades watershed; disruption of the Miccosukee society, and extermination of at least one endangered species, the Cape Sable sparrow, through destruction of its habitat.

A pelican cannonball

There is also a grim warning in the Leopold report for the millions of air travellers who would use the Dade-Collier jetport. Bird strikes have been known to cause airplane crashes, and around the jetport site “flocks may exceed 50,000 and may include numbers of white pelicans and wood storks, species that habitually soar to high altitudes.” The mature white pelican, incidentally, weighs about seventeen pounds. At more than 600 miles per hour any jet striking an object of that bulk would be striking a cannonball.

Finally, early this winter, a third study of the jetport and its environmental impact emerged. This one, commissioned by Dade County and executed by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall’s Overview Group, recommended construction of a “twenty-first-century” jetport at a new site in the Big Cypress, far enough removed from the park to minimize the impact on the wilderness of noise and pollution. Under the Udall plan, “people facilities” would be separated from “plane facilities.” The terminal would be located in metropolitan Miami. There passengers would board a high-speed ground transportation system similar to the 200-miles-per-hour French Aerotrain, to be whisked directly to their waiting plane in the Big Cypress. The Udall plan would restrict jetport access to such a rail system; everyone using the port would therefore have to patronize the ground system. This, in turn, would generate sufficient revenue over the years to create a “conservation fund.” If Udall has his way, the fund would repay bonds issued to finance public acquisition of the Big Cypress even before the jetport was completed. Udall thus would make development of the jetport contingent on the nondevelopment of the Big Cypress, and thereby assure protection of the park’s vital western watershed.

The conservationists were clearly the victors of the Great Jetport Debate of 1969. They created a strong coalition that in September forced Governor Kirk and Secretary Hickel to agree not to support further construction of facilities at the Dade-Collier site. U.S. Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe—somewhat reluctantly, it would appear—went along with this. But there remained a major sore point between Hickel and Volpe: the training airport. Hickel was reportedly furious at Volpe’s announcement of regulations governing the operation of the training field last November, when Hickel was away from Washington. He thought Secretary Volpe had agreed to consultation between their departments before taking action affecting the jetport.While pressure from environmentalists delayed operations at the training field, last fall its two-milelong runway served as a magnet to new development in the Big Cypress. Some private landowners, in fact, petitioned for a new drainage district encompassing thirty-three thousand acres between the training field and the park. But with the agreement this January to allow Bade County to operate its training field with the firm understanding that a new site for the jetport will be found and the effects on the environment will be regularly monitored, development in the Big Cypress has been made a lot less enticing.

In the hearts of many environmentalists, there is a nagging fear that with the much-ballyhooed banning of the Everglades jetport they may have won nothing but time. Governors and Cabinet officers, Crescendos of publicity and public outrage, come and go, but public works projects never die; they simply get shoved to a back burner, there to simmer until the next political turnover brings in a more appreciative chef. Meanwhile, for a great ecosystem and for Everglades National Park, other pots are brewing.

In Miami, James Redford of the Izaak Wallon League wears a pained expression. His deep tan cannot hide it. “This kind of park is very, very hard to preserve,” says Redford. For one thing, he points out, it is not the sort of national park that generates great public enthusiasm. Some 1.3 million visitors passed through Everglades’ gates in 1968, but it is doubtful that a quarter of them were impressed by the scenery, as is nearly everyone who visits such parks as YeIlowstone or Yosemite. Everglades is a biological park. Its drama is to be found in the spectacular display of wading birds, alligators, fish. For the trained observer it is a living laboratory in which one can see how things fit together in nature. But to the uneducated eye, most of the daily drama of plant and animal dynamics goes unnoticed. In consequence, the cheering section for Everglades National Park is skimpy.