Official who nixed Everglades from UN endangered-site list gets Trump job

Everglades dealing with higher water levels than usual

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron took reporters on an airboat tour on Thursday, June 29, 2017, to draw attention to high water in the central Everglades.
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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron took reporters on an airboat tour on Thursday, June 29, 2017, to draw attention to high water in the central Everglades.

An Interior Department official who removed the Everglades from the United Nations’ endangered-sites list during the Bush administration is back.

The Interior Department announced last week that Todd Willens, a longtime Washington-based lobbyist and congressional staffer, will take an assistant deputy secretary job under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

In 2007, Willens urged the United Nations World Heritage Committee to remove Everglades National Park from the list of endangered natural and cultural sites over the objections of the committee’s scientific advisory group.

The UN acquiesced to Willens’ request, and the Everglades was removed.

That decision didn’t sit well with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

“As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Democracy and Human Rights, I plan on holding an investigative hearing into the circumstances surrounding this over-reaching and inappropriate decision to downplay the Everglades,” Nelson wrote in 2007. “This action is absolutely unacceptable and, I believe, warrants Willens’ removal.”

Fast forward to 2017, and Nelson is incredulous that Willens is headed back to the Interior Department.

“It didn’t even come to my attention until you called us,” Nelson, a Democrat, said to a reporter. “Is this the same guy coming back to the Department of Interior? He might try to take it off the list again. Anybody who has a disregard for the importance of the Everglades like this fella has indicated...s houldn’t be in the Department of Interior in a high and influential position.”

The Interior Department argued in 2007 that taking the Everglades off the list was evidence of progress on a longtime effort to cleanup the massive wetlands. But Nelson said the decision was politically motivated, and called for Willens to be fired.

In 2010, Nelson successfully lobbied the Obama administration to put the Everglades back on the list. The Everglades is the only U.S. site of the 54 on the UN’s endangered list.

“The ’Glades remains at risk and should’ve never been removed in the first place,” Nelson said in 2010. “There’s still a lot that needs to be done to restore the River of Grass.”

When asked if he plans to push for the Everglades’ removal from the UN list again, Willens referred questions to an Interior Department spokeswoman, who did not comment.

Willens most recently worked as chief of staff for Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. In 2008, Willens was accused by the Government Accountability Office of interfering in decisions on protecting endangered species while working in the Interior Department. Willens denied the allegation, and left the Interior Department of his on accord later in 2008.

“We know what he did and what he did was horrible,” said Jonathan Ullman, a senior organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Miami office. “He basically went around the park itself to take them off the list. It seems like his history is about undoing protections, so one would suspect that his future will be about that as well.”

While the endangered sites list is largely seen as symbolic, Nelson argued in 2010 that the Everglades’ inclusion makes it easier for the park to get preservation money from the UN and local governments.

Everglades National Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the campaign, Donald Trump pledged to protect the Everglades while campaigning in South Florida.

“A Trump administration will also work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades, which I just flew over,” Trump said weeks before the election. “I just flew over and let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say, I better have a good helicopter.”

But Trump has also expressed his desire to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and scale back environmental regulations, which worries groups working to protect the Everglades.

Trump has yet to release a detailed infrastructure plan, and the Everglades wasn’t mentioned as part of the president’s “Infrastructure Week” in June.

But candidate Trump made specific promises to protect South Florida’s wetlands.

“Our plan will also help you upgrade water and wastewater — and you know you have a huge problem with wastewater — so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution. We have to do it. We will also repair the Herbert Hoover dike in Lake Okeechobee, a lake I’m very familiar with.”

Nelson said he isn’t optimistic about Trump’s declared intentions to clean up the Everglades.

“You can tell a lot about a fella by the company he keeps and you can tell a lot about a president by the appointment that he makes, and here’s a good example.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty