November 29, 2010
Is Everglades Restoration a Dream Too Far?
Mishandling of Indian burial site halts cleanup
By Nancy Smith
Could Everglades restoration get any more botched up?
It’s not enough that the state agency in charge of the restoration is flat broke, or that the political will to add a tax or pile on more debt to keep the project going is nonexistent or that two already skeptical federal judges have ordered the district to get a move on with the cleanup.
Now the little bit of project work that was crawling along south of Lake Okeechobee has been stopped cold.
Why? Because the South Florida Water Management District failed to honor its 2008 promise to the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes. The District’s archeologists were supposed to exhume and remove Native American remains -- mostly bits of teeth and bone -- relocating them respectfully to a place near the excavation site.
But the archeologists kept a secret. Not until just before the holidays did they let on that those “mostly bits of teeth and bone” were actually the partial remains of 56 men, women and children -- a significant discovery for the state and for the Seminole Tribe.
Tribal members are now understandably angry. They want all 901 bones and 245 teeth returned to their original burial ground and they want it protected with a listing on the National Registry of Historic Places.
If only the SFWMD board had listened.
Before the August vote was taken to buy 27,000 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million, the smart folks at the meeting were asking where the money for the reservoir -- the money not dedicated to land purchase -- was going to come from. They begged the Water Management District to wait.
◦Wait to see what’s involved in cleaning up the two polluted parcels.
◦Wait to see if the federal judge is going to grant the Miccosukee Tribe’s request to halt the sale.
◦Wait to see if the three Indian burial mounds on the property could be moved.
Had the board waited, had it said "no" to the land buy, it might have had the money to pay for other CERP components, projects north of Lake Okeechobee, for instance -- projects I know something about.
For 28 years, until I retired from Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, I wrote about the St. Lucie River and Estuary, about their overwhelming beauty, their value, their deterioration.
I know that Martin County taxpayers alone have paid $43 million toward Everglades cleanup, toward the restoration of a natural water flow, toward reducing pollution and providing for water storage for all stakeholders.
So, it troubled me to see an editorial in Wednesday's Scripps newspaper ("Timetable for stopping pollution of the St. Lucie River unacceptable"), saying virtually the same things now that I had written so many years ago. No change. No hope for change.
The editorial quoted Kenneth G. Ammon, the Water Management District's deputy executive director for Everglades restoration and capital projects. He was casually excusing the St. Lucie cleanup's timetable, or lack of one: "If we had unlimited funds and if the design and construction process was managed at the regional level, I'd have no problem saying 15 to 20 years. But that's a lot of ifs, with money being the big driver."
State Sen. Paula Dockery, the day after Charlie Crist's downsized U.S. Sugar deal was approved, said this: “We should never have switched from building projects, from a reservoir that was nearly built, that we had already put $300 million into, to buying land that brings us to a halt.”
Here we are now, as Dockery said, halted.
SFWMD isn't even land-rich-and-cash-poor. The land it bought from U.S. Sugar is mostly poor quality, overpriced and in the wrong place. Disturbing a Native American burial ground is just par for the course.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews