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Cameron Davidson

Off Again, On Again
An influx of funds may signal renewed federal commitment to restoration.

You can’t escape the exotic allure of the Everglades: the mangrove tangles, marshy sweeps of sawgrass prairie, and murky sloughs teeming with crocodiles and birds like wood storks and roseate spoonbills.

Not only do the Everglades serve as a wildlife sanctuary and tourism magnet, they also contain the hemisphere’s largest subtropical wilderness, at more than a million acres. Because of their ecological and economic importance, restoring the Everglades should be a national priority, concludes a white paper that 41 groups—from the National Audubon Society to the Florida Native Plant Society—presented to the Obama administration in February. They’re optimistic this administration will place a higher priority on restoration than did its predecessor. Already things are looking up.

When Congress backed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, hopes were high. But the $10.5 billion program has faltered, in part due to lack of federal and state coordination. “There was not a mandate from on high that the Everglades must be restored,” says the National Parks Conservation Association’s John Adornato. Now federal leadership “is starting to come together.”

Failing to rehabilitate the ecosystem could harm habitat, fisheries, and bird nesting grounds and stopovers, and lead to saltwater inundating vital freshwater aquifers. One boon came in May when the U.S. Sugar Corporation agreed to sell the South Florida Water Management District 73,000 acres, a deal that will protect water flowing from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

Restoration will receive about $96 million in federal stimulus funds and $183 million from the 2009 federal omnibus bill. Much of that will go toward projects the white paper stressed, like improving the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge’s water quality. It’s small compared with the multibillion-dollar price tag, but it’s the largest one-year infusion of federal dollars since 2000. “It’s a lot more than we’ve gotten,” says Jacquie Weisblum, Audubon of Florida’s Everglades Team Leader. From 1999 through 2006 Florida shelled out $2 billion while the federal government put in just $340 million.

New key appointments include longtime restoration veteran, Florida native, and former Audubon chair Carol Browner, now Obama’s assistant for energy and climate change. Also, Col. Terence “Rock” Salt will play a role in restoration as the U.S. Army’s deputy assistant secretary for civil works. Says Weisblum, “Those appointments give us a lot of enthusiasm and optimism for what’s to come from this administration.”

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