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Beleaguered Everglades get Miccosukee action

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The environment is easy to argue about. Everyone will have their opinion and, just as often, their own vested interests. Witness the case of the beleaguered Everglades, that intricate and millennial ecosystem of marshland and grass rivers that nature created to cleanse the waters of Central and South Florida.

The Everglades are being destroyed by pollution, mostly chemical run-off from various agricultural and lawn care chemical inputs, and particularly from sugar cane fields and vegetable farms heavily dosed with fertilizers and pesticides.

Human engineering has caused serious damage over the past several decades as well. For one thing, the Army Corps of Engineers took a beautiful, ecologically-rich river called the Kissimmee and recreated it into a canal, draining wide swaths of the famous wetlands to prepare for agriculture and, eventually, for housing development. The rapid growth of human population in Central and South Florida with its constantly expanding housing developments continues to add tremendous pressure on the fragile and endangered ecosystem.

Phosphorus, a fertilizing chemical, is the most recently targeted culprit. Its voluminous runoff from agriculture is blamed by scientists for causing the rapid growth of noxious cattails and foreign plants that disrupt the natural food chain in large areas of the Everglades. Native species of bird and fish are displaced as a result.

While the Everglades are often characterized by alligators and other interesting animals such as a great variety of reptiles and bird life, in fact, what makes the goal of pristine water quality so important resides at the bottom of the food chain. It is called periphyton - globs of one-celled algae that consists mostly of mucus. Periphyton is eaten by fish and snails, which in turn are eaten by birds and other animals. Everyone agrees that more than 10 parts per billion of phosphorus rapidly destroys periphyton, the loss of which greatly diminishes the ecosystem.

Since 1997, the Miccosukee have regulated their approximately one third portion of the Everglades more strictly than their non-Native neighbors, limiting the presence of phosphorous to 10 parts per billion. A new rule approved in July by the state Environmental Regulation Commission would establish that standard statewide. However apparent loopholes in the new regulation weaken its application by prohibiting the use of pollution data collected near signs of birds, alligators and airboats. Critics charge that these reasons are egregious and vague, as the Everglades are full of bird rookeries, alligator holes and airboat trails. While the new rule appears to provide a more strict limitation, it severely constricts the collection of information that would lead to enforcement.

Most criticism is directed at Florida's Environmental Regulation Commission, which environmentalists argue crafted a rule open to too many interpretations. The ultimate result, the challengers say, will actually hamper efforts to protect the Everglades. Voluminous litigation is certain to follow.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a $7.8 billion project, aims to restore water quantity, quality, timing and distribution. For the Miccosukee, however, pristine water is the goal. Anything else, they say, simply creates a system for more efficient pollution-delivery.

At the cost of $800 million, the state is busy constructing 45,000 acres of artificial marshes to filter pollution from the runoff of sugar fields, suburbs and Lake Okeechobee, which flows into the Everglades. The plan has reduced phosphorous levels from more than 100 ppb in some areas to less than 30 ppb. But much more needs to be done before the goal of 10 ppb can be reached. Last year phosphorous inflows increased again.

The Miccosukee Indian tribe and five environmental groups filed legal challenges to the new rule, denouncing the limit as too lenient. The sleight of hand that limits the collection of data is particularly repugnant. The National Audubon Society, Audubon of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Friends of the Everglades and the Everglades Foundation filed challenges along with the Miccosukee. Conversely, the rule was attacked as too strict by Florida Crystals Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, leaders among sugar producing companies. The sugar industry is challenging the 10 parts per billion in court.

While the challenges are backed by powerful corporations and the opposition is well-funded, it is always heartening to see Native nations indigenous to particular eco-regions take the lead in the work of environmental protection. In recent years, the economic revolution in Indian country has dominated headlines and created a sometimes easy image to besmirch Indian tribes, in fact, as tribes have become more financially viable, the underlying respect for the natural world inherent in tribal philosophies has remained constant. The Miccosukee Tribe, with some 500 members, has used its newfound economic strength to become the most forceful proponent of Everglades water purity.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is adamant that the 10 ppb standard will be enforced, but the Miccosukees will not be satisfied and are pressing for a clear and acceptable method for measuring the pollution.

In a related test case over pristine water involving the pumping of billions of gallons of polluted floodwaters into the Everglades, the Miccosukee are as well leading in fighting the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The High Court has agreed to take the case, brought by reluctant Florida water managers after an appeals court sided with the Tribe and environmental groups in ordering the South Florida Water Management District to apply for federal permits that would regulate the water pumps.

We congratulate the Miccosukee Indian Tribe for its steadfast devotion to the health of their still highly fecund ecosystem.

"The Everglades has become a cesspool," Billy Cypress, Miccosukee tribal chairman told the Washington Post recently. "We won't rest until it's clean."

Aho.