U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is aboard an airboat in the Everglades on trip to tout the Obama administration's progress on Everglades clean up.
From a helicopter over Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took in some of the daunting challenges of restoring the Everglades.
Down below, suburbs abut the refuge’s last cypress stands. Vast sugar farms loom to the north. Cattails, fueled by nutrient pollution, choke out native plants around its border. Massive man-made marshes filter dirty water flowing in, but not well enough. Giant pumps replicate a natural flow now blocked by canals and levees.
The visit to the western Palm Beach County refuge was intended to highlight Everglades restoration progress by the Obama administration, which has kick-started stalled projects with $1.5 billion in federal support over the last 3 1/2 years and struck an important pollution clean-up settlement last month with Florida.
But partisan election-year overtones buzzed almost as loudly as the cicadas. In what sounded an awful lot like Obama campaign talking points, Salazar ticked off a string of successes while also issuing a caution about the amount of work ahead and uncertain future state and federal support.
“Frankly, a great fear I have is there will be a U-turn,’’ Salazar told reporters after a chopper and airboat tour.
He questioned the long-term support of Republican Gov. Rick Scott for the deal, which will cost the state some $880 million to expand manmade marshes that reduce the flow of the damaging nutrient phosphorus.
“There has to be a continued commitment on the part of the state of Florida to get this thing done,’’ Salazar said. Scott, who had personally championed a settlement, released a statement saying his office has worked closely with federal agencies and environmentalists to secure the agreement.
“I would be shocked if Secretary Salazar said that, knowing how hard we’ve worked on our historic agreement to restore water quality and water flow to the Everglades,’’ he said. “I, along with all Floridians, care deeply about the Everglades and recognize it as an international treasure.’’
But notably absent from Salazar’s visit were representatives of the South Florida Water Management District, which is in charge of Everglades restoration for the state and headquartered a half-hour drive from the refuge. The district — which last week tentatively agreed to trim $100 million from its budget, money environmentalists argue should be put toward clean-up costs — referred questions to the governor’s office
Salazar, whose agency oversees federal parks and refuges, also warned that a budget drafted by Republicans in Congress would amount to a “death knell’’ for programs that fund conservation projects – not just Everglades restoration but nationwide.
“It’s not the kind of conservation agenda that Teddy Roosevelt or Barack Obama or I would support,’’ he said. “I will do everything I can to fight that, as will the president.’’
Salazar’s visit followed one last week to Orlando by four high-ranking administration aides to announce an $80 million purchase of “conservation easements’’ that will preserve 23,000 acres of rural wetlands in the Northern Everglades. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a fellow Democrat facing a tough election battle this year, made a similar Glades-as-a-backdrop stop in Miami-Dade County in April.
Matt Connelly, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, accused the White House of using the Everglades to distract from more pressing national problems.
“It’s clearly a political move that highlights how desperate the president is to talk about anything besides his failed economic policies and political cronyism for campaign donors,” Connelly said.
Salazar insisted restoring the River of Grass had been his and the president’s top environmental priority from day one, Salazar said. He acknowledged there were decades of work ahead but argued “we have been able to move more the last 3 1/2 years than we have, I think, in the last 20 years."
The administration calculates that the $1.5 billion it has put into restoration in the president’s first term nearly matches the previous eight years under President George W. Bush — an uptick in federal funding that helped break ground on a number of long-stalled projects, including the bridging of Tamiami Trail. The White House banned the importation of the Burmese python that had invaded the Glades – an effort championed by Salazar – and after 18 months of intense negotiations cut a pollution clean-up deal with the state intended to resolve two long-running federal lawsuits.
How much Everglades support will resonate with typical Florida voters is uncertain but environmentalists heaped praise on the efforts by the administration. Historically, candidates from both parties have pledged to save the Everglades but so far Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hasn’t taken a public position on continuing support for the $12.5 billion state and federal restoration project, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.
“It looks like Romney has ceded the Everglades to the president,’’ Draper said. “The message that Romney sends out about smaller government and less taxes is antithetical to Everglades restoration.’’ Miami Herald Staff Writer Marc Caputo contributed to the story.