U.S. Sugar Tastes Sour To Everglades Tribe
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
OK. Staying in Florida, there's a battle there over a restoration plan for the Everglades. On one side, environmental groups and public officials, and on the other, a small group of Native Americans who actually live there. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: It's not that the Miccosukee Indian tribe is opposed to the $1.7 billion state buyout of U.S. Sugar. It's just that tribe members don't want the buy out to divert money from long-promised projects that would improve water quality because water quality is something they care deeply about.
(Soundbite of an airboat)
ALLEN: The Miccosukee lived here surrounded by water in the heart of the Everglades for centuries, where once they used canoes. Today, tribe members and their employees use airboats to get around the 130 square mile reservation.
Mr. JAMES ERSKINE (Water Quality Manager, Miccosukee Tribe): This is some of the most pristine areas that are left in the Everglades, right here.
ALLEN: James Erskine is the water quality manager for the Miccosukee tribe. He's brought me to a slue, really just a wide slow flowing river that runs through an area on the southern edge of the reservation. Erskine reaches down into the water and pulls up a small, purple flower.
Mr. ERSKINE: This plant here, this little diminutive flower's called Utricularia purpurea, and this plant is very sensitive to phosphorous.
ALLEN: Phosphorous is one of the major pollutants in the Everglades. For decades, it's been added as fertilizer to the sugarcane fields 50 miles north of here. When that phosphorus gets to the Everglades, Erskine says, it spells trouble for small but important plants like Utricularia purpurea.
Mr. ERSKINE: It's a Bladderwort. It's actually got little digestive enzymes in the bladders here, so it can catch microscopic prey and digest them. And it's the basis of the food chain here.
ALLEN: To protect that plant and the rest of the ecosystem, the Miccosukee tribe has long fought to force the state and federal government to enforce strict water quality standards in the Everglades. In a recent ruling, a federal judge agreed with the Miccosukee. He admonished the EPA for allowing Florida to delay cleaning up water quality in the Everglades.
To understand why water quality is so important to the Miccosukee, it helps to understand some geography. The tribe's reservation is at the north end of the Everglades, just south of the agricultural area that's the source of much of the pollution. Erskine says, in that area, excess phosphorus has changed the ecosystem by encouraging the growth of cattails.
Mr. ERSKINE: They grow so compact and so tightly together that they choke out the water flow, and they restrict the water flow through the river of grass.
ALLEN: The cattails become so thick, airboats can't get to the area, and sections of the reservation have become inaccessible to the Miccosukee. In their drive to improve water quality, the tribe has found itself at odds not just with state and federal authorities but also with environmental groups. The tribe has opposed environmental groups on some Everglades projects, and now is questioning the state buyout of U.S. Sugar. When the buyout was announced in June, the head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, Mike Sole, said the whole plan for Everglades restoration would now have to be reassessed.
Mr. MIKE SOLE (Head, Florida Department of Environmental Protection): Now, we get to take a step back, now with this new opportunity, and say, all right, what will we do to restore Florida's Everglades and America's Everglades.
ALLEN: The buyout would eliminate one of the biggest sources of pollution in the Everglades and acquire land that could be used to restore the ecosystem's natural flow. But the state wouldn't take possession for at least several years, and in the meantime, it's put a massive reservoir project in the Everglades on hold. The Miccosukee went to court recently to try to force the state to complete the project, without success. Kirk Fordham is the head of the Everglades Foundation, one of several environmental groups that opposed the Miccosukee lawsuit.
Mr. KIRK FORDHAM (CEO, Everglades Foundation): I think we need to take an overall look at the plan and do what makes the most sense. And I don't think it would make sense to move forward on a construction project that could get in the way of the overall restoration plan.
ALLEN: Negotiations over that big sugar buyout, however, are taking longer than anticipated. They're also running into opposition from community leaders, who are worried about what it will mean for the area's economy. Standing on his airboat on the Miccosukee reservation, James Erskine calls the sugar buyout a dream, one that may not happen for 10 or 15 years.
Mr. ERSKINE: The Everglades needs its reprieve now, and there's on-the-ground projects to do that. And those on-the-ground projects should continue to move forward and be funded.
ALLEN: A report recently released by the National Research Council also takes federal authorities to task for not moving ahead faster on Everglades restoration. Eight years after Congress approved the $8 billion plan, not one restoration project has yet been completed. While it commends the state for making a deal to buy out U.S. Sugar, the report warns that, unless progress is made soon on Everglades restoration, the decline of the ecosystem may be impossible to reverse.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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