Has Bush Abandoned the Everglades?

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Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty

An American crocodile swims in the waters of the Florida Everglades National Park.

The Everglades has been an endangered site ever since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started draining and diverting it in the mid-20th century, trashing eons of delicate natural plumbing to make way for Florida sugar farms and ranch houses. Only in 2000 did the Florida and federal governments finally seem to acknowledge that the 18,000-square-mile "River of Grass" was not a swamp but a unique and vital ecosystem. They embarked on a $10 billion, 20-year project to restore the Everglades to something like its original state.

So it turned more than a few heads in June when the United Nations' World Heritage Committee, which monitors the globe's important natural and cultural sites, removed the Everglades from its endangered list at the behest of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The circumstances behind the action have infuriated Florida Democrats and environmentalists — and cast more suspicions on the Bush Administration's penchant for bending science to suit its politics.

"This action is unacceptable," Florida's Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, wrote this month to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, adding that it "warrants [the] removal" of one of Kempthorne's top officials. But the Administration insists Nelson and Everglades activists are the ones putting politics over empirical evidence — and at the expense of poorer countries that are trying to save important natural resources more endangered than the Everglades.

The Everglades, specifically Everglades National Park, has been on the U.N.'s endangered list since 1993. By then the levees and canals the Army Corps had dug, as well as breakneck South Florida development and agricultural waste products like phosphorous, were wreaking eco-havoc. An astonishing 90% of the Everglades' wading bird population, for example, had disappeared. Last February, the park's experts laid out benchmarks for Everglades improvement — "which when met," the report says, "would facilitate the removal" of the park from the U.N. list. The report made it clear that while progress was being made in areas like correcting the Everglades' water flow and reducing pollutants, more was needed. The World Heritage Committee's scientific advisory group reached the same conclusion, and it recommended the Everglades be kept on the list.

But at a U.N. meeting in New Zealand this summer, Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Todd Willens urged the World Heritage Committee to remove Everglades National Park from the list. Enough progress had been made on Everglades restoration, Willens argued, even if the experts' benchmarks hadn't been met. The World Heritage Committee, which tries to respect the recommendations of a site's host country, went along. Kempthorne issued a statement saying he was "gratified" that the U.N. had "recognized the major commitment the U.S. has made to restoring one of our nation's and the world's greatest natural treasures."

Now, after reviewing the discrepancies between the scientists and Interior, Nelson and a host of Everglades watchdog groups are crying foul. Nelson, who is calling for Willens to be fired, even plans to convene a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that he chairs. Progress, he argues, hasn't been sufficient. The Everglades restoration project is still less than half finished and is still threatened by pressure from Florida developers; what's more, because of what critics call funding delays by the Administration and congressional Republicans, it is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. "The federal government really hasn't fulfilled its end of the bargain yet," says Mark Kraus, vice president and chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation in Miami.

Scratching the Everglades from the U.N. list, the critics charge, conveniently deflects attention from that fact. And, they fear, it gives President Bush political cover when, as expected, he vetoes a $21 billion federal water preservation bill that Congress passed last week, which includes almost $2 billion more for Everglades restoration. (Bush feels the measure is too expensive.) Add to that the Bush Administration's reputation — from global warming to stem cell research — for ignoring if not rewriting science in favor of its conservative and pro-business agenda, and it's no surprise that Democrats and environmentalists are so upset.

But are they overreacting this time? Willens has adamantly insisted that neither he nor the Administration did anything underhanded in New Zealand. Stephen Morris, the National Park Service's international affairs director, agrees: Willens, he argues, correctly interpreted the purpose of the World Heritage Committee's list — to call attention to threats and get countries to act on them. In the Everglades' case, "the 1993 listing achieved what it was supposed to do," which was to get a restoration project under way, says Morris. And a big reason the Committee voted in the end to remove the Everglades, he adds, is that its list contains hundreds of other sites in far poorer countries — like war-ravaged nature sanctuaries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — that demand the U.N.'s money and attention more than the Everglades does.

Even critics might agree that the Administration's concern for developing nations in this particular case is admirable — as long as it's not simply a justification for paying less attention to the endangered site closer to home.