Obama in Everglades: Threats from climate change ‘can’t be edited out’ of conversation

President Barack Obama visits Everglades National Park on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
President Barack Obama visits Everglades National Park on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

With a sawgrass prairie at his back and spring rain clouds darkening the sky, President Barack Obama on Wednesday cast the beleaguered Everglades as the poster child for climate change.

Obama called for quick and aggressive action in a speech that pivoted between touting the administration’s efforts so far and calling out Republicans for not doing enough.

“If we don’t act, there may not be an Everglades as we know it,” Obama said on his first trip to the vast marshlands that provide habitat to a rich array of wildlife and supply much of the freshwater used by about 8 million South Florida residents.

Obama’s visit came at a critical time for both the Everglades — scientists holding a separate meeting this week warned that impacts from rising sea levels threaten to collapse coastal marshes faster than the ecosystem can adapt — and for Florida politics. State lawmakers and water managers have resisted appeals to buy a huge tract of sugar fields that environmentalists say is needed to store water to revive the wilting southern Everglades and stop polluted water from fouling estuaries near Lake Okeechobee.

Underlining that partisan divide, the audience at Wednesday’s speech held outside the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park consisted largely of Democrats and environmentalists.

Obama also took a jab at Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who prohibited state staff from using the term “climate change,” according to several former employees and academics. Scott has said no such ban exists.

“Climate change can no longer be denied. It can’t be edited out. It can’t be omitted from the conversation,” Obama said, without naming the governor.

Scott, who has greeted Obama on past trips to Florida, turned down the White House’s invitation to do so Wednesday. The governor’s office said Scott had to stay in Tallahassee for the legislative session — though he traveled to Orlando on Monday and West Palm Beach on Tuesday, and plans to visit Fort Myers on Thursday.

In a statement Tuesday, Scott noted the state has spent more on Everglades restoration so far than the federal government.

“President Obama needs to live up to his commitment on the Everglades,” he said, noting the federal government has yet to pay for a $58 million maintenance backlog at the largest national park east of the Mississippi. “This has caused critical maintenance delays in the Everglades to linger for over a year.”

On Wednesday, Obama called on Congress to step up funding for restoration efforts that have dragged on for nearly 15 years.

“This is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore. This is a problem now. It has serious implications for the way we live right now. Stronger storms. Deeper droughts. Longer wildfire seasons,” he said.

Those risks are particularly evident in the low-lying Everglades, where mangroves have already started to retreat inland and scientists are still trying to understand damage from Hurricane Wilma nearly 10 years ago, that led to an increase in harmful salinity levels in peat that supports the marshes. Environmentalists say that had more progress been made on restoration work, the wetlands would be better positioned to survive seas expected to rise by about 3 feet in the next century.

“This is not just about birds and alligators and panthers,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, who attended Wednesday’s speech. “It’s about the future of Florida.”

Staging the president’s remarks at Everglades National Park appeared a calculated political move. Voters will elect a new president in 18 months — and the Republican field is teeming with would-be candidates who question whether climate change is man-made, despite scientific scholarship concluding that it is. That includes U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, both Miamians.

Obama ticked off a list of Republican presidents — Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush — who championed important environmental causes, and he mentioned that local political leaders of both parties had agreed to form the four-county Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, calling it “a model not just for the country, but for the world.”

“This is not something that historically should be a partisan issue,” he said.

Before his speech, the president and park rangers walked the Anhinga Trail, the park’s most popular tourist stop, passing baby alligators, sleek cormorants and a pair of black vultures, infamous for periodically eating the rubber off of visitor vehicles. There was no chance to take an iconic photo of the president on an airboat; a possible ride didn’t happen because of a storm threat.

Obama arrived at the Everglades aboard Marine One, taking a 20-minute helicopter ride from Miami International Airport, and hopped on the presidential motorcade inside the park. He also left via helicopter — but police shut down South Dade streets to make way for the empty motorcade anyway, leaving stuck motorists to wave unknowingly at cars that weren’t carrying the president.

In his speech, Obama also highlighted the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. A new report found national park land stores more than 14 million tons of carbon every year. The Everglades stores enough to absorb half the emissions from South Florida vehicles, said park service director Jon Jarvis, who visited with Dante B. Fascell Elementary fourth-graders before the speech.

National parks also drew 300 million visitors last year, who spent about $16 billion on nearby communities that supported 277,000 jobs, Obama said.

Hoping to draw more visitors, Obama said $25 million will be spent to spruce up parks. Starting in the fall, fourth graders and their families nationwide will also get free admission for a year.

In a move some consider long overdue, Obama also announced the national landmark designation of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Coconut Grove cottage. The journalist who penned The Everglades: River of Grass in the 1940s is credited with redefining the vast marshland from a useless, buggy swamp to an essential and vulnerable ecosystem that nourishes South Florida.

While environmentalists were happy to see the Everglades in the spotlight, some say that chronic delays that have stalled restoration make it a poor model for climate change solutions.

“This is not a model for climate change. Saving this place requires a huge leap of optimism and a huge amount of effort,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

There were some signs, at least locally, of an emerging dialogue.

If any work is to be done, however, politics will have to be set aside, said U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who flew with Obama on Air Force One after having been snubbed from the plane in the president’s last visit. U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, also rode along. And Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is also a Republican, also met the president at Miami International Airport.

“There’s some bipartisan solutions out there we can employ,” Curbelo said.

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