Putting the Country in Country Club

What better place than a golf course to hold an environmental conference?

The nature lovers were out in force, as were others who have made the environment their business. More than 150 environmental activists, scientists, regulators, engineers, lawyers, and consultants packed the conference rooms and corridors of a hotel in Broward County. Like moths to a light bulb, they came from all over the United States to attend the eleventh annual national conference of the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of more than 30 conservation organizations.

Since 1985 the coalition has sponsored the conference to bring together environmentally concerned eggheads, pencil pushers, and tree huggers from around Florida and across the nation, in an effort to resolve the problems threatening the most crucial element of South Florida's precarious ecosystem. Among the dozens of organizations in attendance at this year's meeting two weeks ago were the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the various Audubon societies. The National Park Service sent people, as did the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the governments of Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties. Academics from the University of Miami and Florida International University were on hand. Featured speakers at this year's meeting -- dubbed "Everglades Restoration: The Key to a Sustainable South Florida" -- included Carol Browner, administrator of the EPA, and Alice Rivlin, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget. Even U.S. Sen. Bob Graham made an appearance.

There they all were, gathered at the Grand Palms Golf & Country Club in Pembroke Pines, debating how to save what's left of the Everglades. For an ironic lesson in the cost of further delay, the participants had only to look as far as their shoes. They would have been hard-pressed to find a more degraded -- and demoralizing -- slice of the River of Grass.

In fact, the location was the source of more than a little sotto voce grumbling among participants. The site, many complained, was wholly inappropriate for an environmental conference.

For one, the attendees were meeting right next to a golf course -- a notoriously unfriendly use of land: Generally speaking, golf courses disturb native soil and habitat, affect natural hydrology, increase stormwater runoff, offer little of value to wildlife, and put surface water and ground water at risk owing to intensive deployment of fertilizers and pesticides. For those conference participants needing a reminder, the main conference room overlooked the driving range, where duffers pounded (nonbiodegradable) balls into a manmade lake. One conference participant says he gazed out the window during a panel discussion to witness a groundskeeper trundling by in a fertilizer cart, clouds of chemicals billowing in the wind.

Grand Palms is located near the edge of the Everglades, on land that until the late 1960s was waterlogged. To many South Florida environmentalists, Pembroke Pines is synonymous with the term "urban sprawl." Where deer once gambolled and herons nested, backhoes now rumble and shoppers binge. The neighborhood consists of vast housing developments with thousands of units each, and strip malls the size of airport terminals.

"I don't think it's a good idea for coalition members or an interest group to fail to vote with its dollars as well as with its ideas," says one coalition member who requested anonymity. "It is inconsistent for us to decry westward sprawl on the one hand while using our dollars to create the economic incentive on the other."

Coalition member Jack Moller, a sportsman and representative of both the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Everglades Coordinating Council, remembers exploring the area as a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s while on deer hunting expeditions with his father. "We used to leave Opa-locka City Hall in swamp buggies," he recalls. Just north of Opa-locka was Dade's urban boundary. "There it would drop off into swamp and we'd drive along the swamp-buggy tracks. You know where the Publix is on Flamingo?" Moller asks, referring to the grocery store at Flamingo Road and Pines Boulevard, about two and a half miles east of Grand Palms. "There was a nice little island there, where there was a hunting cabin. There isn't anything there now."

Patti Webster, a leading Broward environmental activist and coalition member who helped organize the conference, bristles at the criticism. She says it was out of "necessity" that the conference took place at Grand Palms. "We had intended it to be at a hotel along I-95, but the rates there were exorbitant," says Webster, executive director of the Environmental Coalition of Broward County. "We made an economic decision that enabled us to have twice as many people come and learn about the Everglades." The organizers selected a site in Broward, she adds, because the county had never hosted a coalition conference.

Anyway, Webster says, it has been decades since the area was pristine wilderness. Indeed, that area began to dry up in the 1950s, with the building of a levee about four miles west of Grand Palms. The club itself was constructed about 25 years ago. "That's old news," declares Webster, who has fought against some of the developments constructed in the vicinity in recent years.

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