The Bitter Struggle For A National Park

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For its part, the F.C.D. insists that the corps has jurisdiction only over the floodgates and canals that supply the water, not the distribution of the water itself. Moreover, the F.C.D. so far has declined to guarantee any specific supply to the park. In times of drought, it argues, the park must “share in adversity.” Some park officials wince at the very phrase. “Who ever thought that up?” one of them asks. “It’s like asking someone to share cancer.” Manuel Morris, the Park Service’s chief troubleshooter in Everglades matters, is more flexible. “Sure,” he says, “we’ll share adversity—with the present water users. The trouble is, Florida keeps growing.”

Lately, under the administration of Governor Kirk, the F.C.D. has assumed a more co-operative attitude toward the park. The old alligators-be-damned crowd has been retired from the district’s board of commissioners. The present vice chairman (and former chairman), for example, is Robert Padrick, an amiable Fort Pierce auto dealer, a member in good standing of the Sierra Club, and Florida’s “Outstanding Conservationist” of 1969. Padrick and F.C.D. Chairman Robert P. Blakeley are in a tough spot. Their three water conservation areas in Palm Beach, Broward, and Bade counties are almost as large as the park itself. In and from them, the F.C.D. must try simultaneously to meet the needs of agriculture, prevent flooding, recharge the Biscayne aquifer from which the coastal cities draw their potable water, and accommodate the park. Beyond those responsibilities is yet another: the conservation areas are perhaps South Florida’s most popular and productive hunting and fishing grounds. Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission estimates that the three areas generate up to $10,000,000 a year in recreation spending. “I feel as strongly about our conservation areas,” says Padrick, “as Mr. Hartzog [George Hartzog, director of the National Park Service] feels about his park. It’s not a question of which is better, ham or eggs. The two go together.”

But not everyone is sure exactly how the two go together. Defenders of the park fear the power of the rod-and-gun lobby in Tallahassee (which fought successfully to delete 650,000 acres from the park’s authorized area during a 1958 boundary settlement). They are afraid, for example, that the F.C.D. will regulate water levels in its conservation areas to accommodate the demands of hunters and fishermen.

Joe Browder, of the Audubon Society, is appalled by what the hunters’ halftracks and swamp buggies have done to the fragile saw-grass Everglades in the conservation areas. “The state is turning Florida into a zoo,” complains Browder. “They’d stock the Everglades with giraffe if they thought they could sell licenses to shoot them. And they probably could.”

At the moment the state is too busy with its new water resources plan. Written largely by the Corps of Engineers at the request of Congress, and supported by the Park Service as a partial solution to its problems, the plan calls for a variety of new water-control structures, including another vertical addition to Okeechobee’s levee, so that the storage level of the lake can be raised four feet more than previously authorized.

As the new water plan moves ahead, scientists in South Florida are seeking answers to a variety of interlocking questions—questions about run-off and evapotranspiration, about oxidation and changes in plant communities—questions the public works engineers never learned how to ask until it was too late, or until they were dragged kicking to the query by the public discovery that somehow a healthy ecosystem might just happen to be as important as a healthy economy.

Among the unanswered questions, perhaps the most critical is this: Where does all the water in South Florida go ? One place it goes is the ocean. Even in Collier County, now outside the F.C.D.’s realm, new canals dredged by the Gulf-American Land Corporation and other speculative developers are pouring billions of gallons into the Gulf. But no one apparently knows how much. The loss from the east side of the Everglades is so great that the F.C.D. and the corps have included in their water plan provisions for an elaborate system of backpumping water, intercepting it before it reaches the sea and sending it back into Okeechobee and the conservation areas. Vice Chairman Padrick is excited about the backpumping scheme. But neither he nor the sharpest minds in the U.S. Interior Department can predict what effect the backpumped water might have on the lake and conservation areas, charged, as the water most certain will be, with all kinds of agricultural wastes and chemicals picked up in transit along the canals.