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Support Everglades plan

Gov. Jeb Bush should persuade Florida lawmakers to look

beyond geography and special interests to find a way to finance

the state's share of a White House plan to restore the Everglades.

The White House's ambitious plan to fix the Florida Everglades would be the biggest environmental restoration project in history. It would also be among the most important, especially for Floridians who depend on the River of Grass for fresh water and natural beauty and for the wildlife that live there. Gov. Jeb Bush should make financing the state's share of the plan a top priority. He should use his political muscle to pressure Tallahassee and Washington lawmakers, who often are motivated more by geographic parochialism or special corporate interests than the good of the land.

The costs of restoring the Everglades are daunting. The state's share of the $7.8-billion price tag would be $200-million a year for 20 years, with much of the money likely to come from South Florida property owners. The Legislature will have to find a big chunk of funds, possibly $60-million a year for 20 years. But it is well worth the costs. The plan, crafted by the Army Corps of Engineers with the help of environmental groups, would undo the damage begun 50 years ago when the corps built a series of canals and pump stations aimed at controlling floods in South Florida and clearing the way for development. The project disrupted the flow of water and left parts of the Everglades dry or flooded, killing plants and animals. The system also wastes precious fresh water by pumping millions of gallons into the ocean every day.

Florida's obligation is a significant commitment of the state's budget. Republican leaders in the Legislature will have to overcome their penchant to put tax cuts and special interests ahead of more important policy matters. They will have to put aside parochial tendencies and act in the best interest of the state and the environment, even if their district lies hundreds of miles from the Everglades. The Everglades, meanwhile, should not become a bargaining chip for legislators eager to hold their votes hostage in exchange for some pet project.

If Florida lawmakers are looking for creative ways to find money, they should require polluters to pay a portion of the restoration costs. Such a sensible solution is unlikely given the agriculture industry's tight hold on the state House, but pressure from the public and the governor could make it happen.

Bush should use his bully pulpit to remind lawmakers and the public that the Everglades is an endangered ecological system that is vital to the state's future. It is a crucial magnet for tourism dollars and can be an important source of fresh water for one of the nation's fastest growing regions. If funding runs into trouble in Tallahassee, lawmakers in Washington will be less likely to contribute. As it is, some members of Congress representing Western states would rather see that kind of money go to their region. Disunity in Florida only helps their case. For that reason, the Florida congressional delegation must speak with one strong bipartisan voice.

Few issues are as politically popular as the environment. Vice President Al Gore has made the Everglades a campaign backdrop before, and Gov. Bush's brother, George W. Bush, would be smart to do the same. But without a firm commitment from Jeb Bush and lawmakers in Tallahassee, those photo ops will be meaningless.