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Obama Administration to request Everglades be put back on endangered sites list

Two years after a Bush Administration official removed Everglades National Park from a United Nations' list of endangered world sites, Obama Administration officials are seeking to put it back on.

"Hallelujah," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in response.

Nelson has been lobbying for the Everglades to be put back on the list ever since the St. Petersburg Times reported that the park had been pulled off despite findings by scientists that the Everglades had not met the requirements for being removed from the list.

"I agree that the park was removed from the list without adequate consultation and without appropriate measures in place to evaluate our efforts to restore the ecosystem," newly appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote in a letter to Nelson this month.

As a result, Salazar wrote, at a meeting that started in Spain this week, "I am instructing our National Park Service representatives ... to initiate discussions about relisting Everglades National Park."

The World Heritage Committee had listed the Everglades as endangered since 1993, when it was beset with threats from encroaching development, water pollution and damage from Hurricane Andrew.

When the U.N. committee's science advisers visited the park in 2006, "we said it should stay on the danger list because further work needed to be done," David Sheppard, the committee's top science adviser, told the Times in 2007.

National Park Service biologists spent months crafting a set of benchmarks that could be used to determine when the park would be ready to be taken off the list.

But when the committee met in July 2007, "the head of the U.S. delegation made the comment that it should come off (the list) because of the progress they had made," and the committee went along with that, Sheppard said.

A report released a week later showed the billion-dollar Everglades restoration project, begun in 2000, had already fallen years behind schedule.

The head of the delegation at the time was Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens, formerly an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a frequent critic of environmental laws. Before that Willens was a lobbyist for Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Everglades National Park's top scientist said politics drove the decision.

"There's always been a kind of pressure from the Washington level to say, 'Okay, we've got a plan, now take us off the list,' '' Robert Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at the park since 1995, told the Times two years ago.

Being taken off the list "gives people the impression that things are going well," when the restoration is actually decades away from achieving its goals, Johnson said.

Willens, who since 2008 has gone back to lobbying, denied politics drove the decision.

Before the meeting, representatives from some of the 21 other countries on the committee told him they wanted the Everglades off the list because of the 7-year-old restoration project. So even though the National Park Service's own report recommended keeping the Everglades on the danger list, "I changed the last sentence of our report and said we wanted to be taken off," Willens said.

He said he made the motion before any other country could jump in, because "the U.S. should be fully in charge of its own sites."

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com.

Obama Administration to request Everglades be put back on endangered sites list 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 9:45pm]
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