KISSIMMEE — The Everglades always draws a crowd in an election year.
On Friday, several Obama administration officials held a news conference to announce that an additional $80 million had been set aside to help restore 23,000 acres of wetlands on farms and ranches in the northernmost reaches of the River of Grass.
They also wanted to tout how the president, now running for re-election, had poured $1.5 billion into various Everglades projects over the past 3 1/2 years, jump-starting a federal effort that had languished under President George W. Bush.
"The president has made restoration of the Everglades a national priority," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the most senior of the four administration officials who flew in for the announcement.
Environmental activists and agriculture industry leaders alike said they welcomed the election-year attention — and the money being spent to set aside land for restoration and preservation.
"Of course there are political overtones" to the announcement, said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club, who attended the event at the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee. "Florida is a key battleground state. I've got Sierra Club members in other states complaining to me that Obama hasn't done anything in their state like what's been done in Florida."
"Election years are always helpful," agreed Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. "But this is a big deal."
The $80 million from the USDA's wetlands program stands in sharp contrast to "the lack of interest by our state leaders for doing anything for land acquisition," Lee said.
According to Vilsack, past contributions combined with the new $80 million is the most money his department has budgeted for one state in its history. The money will be used to buy development rights from ranchers and then restore wetlands on the property.
"No other state has seen this level of support in this short a time," said Vilsack as dragonflies, butterflies and a lone swallowtail kite flew over the sun-baked prairie behind him.
That money is targeted at the northern end of the Everglades in Central Florida, where federal officials are trying to establish a new wildlife refuge. The more expensive and complicated task lies south of Lake Okeechobee, where the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are trying to undo the complex and destructive drainage and flood-control system built there between the 1940s and 1960s, as well as clean up the flow of pollution.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Gov. Jeb Bush signed an agreement to launch an ambitious series of projects to restore that end of the River of Grass. The state and federal government were supposed to be partners, but after the Sept. 11 attacks the federal government left the state to do most of the work. The state has so far outspent the federal government by $3 billion to $854 million.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences last month found that, a dozen years after the much-ballyhooed launch of Everglades restoration, too much of the work done so far has focused on water storage and flood-control projects on the edges that benefit cities and farmers.
Not enough has been aimed at reviving the marshes and sloughs that are crucial to the Everglades' flow and to its remaining wildlife, the report found.
Thus, over the past 12 years, as politicians and bureaucrats have repeatedly announced progress on Everglades initiatives, the Everglades' natural systems have continued to degrade.
However, the report found, there are some signs that things are starting to turn around — the spread of cattails, replacing the native sawgrass, has at last slowed, for instance.
But there's still a long way to go. The cleanup of damaging phosphorus — a common fertilizer ingredient that drains into the Everglades from farms and yards with every rainstorm — has cut the concentration to 34 parts per billion in the water, but the Everglades needs it to be no more than 10. Gov. Rick Scott and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently cut a deal for the state to spend $880 million on expanding artificial marshes to clean the water to that level at last.
To Lake Wales rancher Cary Lightsey, what counts is not what this year's voters will think of all this effort, but rather what Florida's future residents will think.
"When the citizens of this state look back on this day 50 years from now, they're not going to condemn what we did," predicted Lightsey, grinning broadly beneath his white Stetson. "If we didn't do anything, then most of this land would become houses."
Information from the Miami Herald was used in this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]