By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Dick Ring, superintendent of Everglades National Park, wanted to go on a camp-out. He invited several colleagues to join him for a long weekend at Fort Jefferson National Monument in the Dry Tortugas, an archipelago of coral reefs 70 miles west of Key West. Staffers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went, as did a group from the South Florida Water Management District. In all there were about eighteen excursionists. On Thursday, January 18, they hopped aboard a launch that ferried them out to the fort, a nineteenth-century garrison. During the next two days they cooked meals in the Fort's Spartan quarters, explored the reefs, and engaged in long discussions about one of their favorite shared interests: Everglades restoration.
The trip was not fun and games, Ring explains, but a "team-building exercise. The four agencies involved have been working very hard on the restoration projects for the southern part of the Everglades system. We've had folks working hard with A and on A each other for a number of years. The pressure is increasing to get these projects done faster." Ring and his counterparts at the other agencies felt that a private retreat might be just the ticket to defuse animosity and miscommunication.
By all accounts it was a productive outing. Some people, though, aren't at all pleased with the trip: They weren't invited.
Virginia "Ginger" Wetherell, for one. Wetherell, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), wrote a letter expressing her indignation at being left off the guest list. "With respect to the Everglades litigation and restoration efforts, there is a history of the Department being placed in the position that a decision or plan of action is agreed upon by the federal parties and the Water Management District and presented to the Department not for comment or discussion, but more as a fait accompli," she wrote in a missive to Valerie Boyd, who chairs the Water Management District's governing board. "While I understand the retreat was initiated by the federal parties, this persistence by staff in excluding the Department from discussions must stop. . . . Frankly, Department staff are concerned with the cavalier manner in which they are repeatedly excluded from discussions, and can only wonder at what ulterior motives may underlie these actions."
Sam Poole, executive director of the Water Management District, says that he has since spoken to Wetherell and that they're sorting out their differences. The Dry Tortugas party was composed of the agencies who have been most hands-on in the Everglades restoration process, Poole explains. And Wetherell's agency hasn't been purposely excluded from the loop in the past, he insists. "DEP's difficulty in tracking Everglades restoration issues is that they are pretty severely underfunded and don't really have enough people to cover the issues," Poole argues. In some cases, he adds, DEP staffers have attended meetings in South Florida; Wetherell and other administrators just weren't hearing about them.
"What I think this represents is the fact that we don't have enough interaction with DEP and that we're all feeling the pressure; we're all under the microscope," Poole concludes. "The Everglades issues are developing so rapidly that you have to be there constantly." (Wetherell couldn't be reached for comment for this story.)
If Wetherell seemed peeved about the perceived snub, her reaction was gentle compared to the response of the Miccosukee Tribe. They've taken the issue to court.
On February 16 an attorney for the tribe complained to a federal judge that the Dry Tortugas get-together was only the most recent in a long series of official meetings from which they have been illegally excluded. In 1994 the tribe had filed a lawsuit alleging that they were illegally being shut out of meetings in which federal officials were planning the restoration of the Everglades. Miccosukee general counsel Dexter Lehtinen says the Dry Tortugas meeting may have violated federal laws that require, under certain circumstances, public notice of meetings between federal and other governmental agencies. "It's part of a consistent, longstanding pattern of trying to conduct business in the shade instead of in the sunshine," the attorney declares.
Lehtinen says the tribe should have been included in the meeting because the discussions pertained to policy decisions affecting their home, located in the Everglades. He cites the weekend's agenda, which included a session devoted in part to the settlement agreement to the landmark 1988 federal lawsuit against the State of Florida, and to the Everglades Forever Act, which arose out of that suit.
Poole contends that the discussions did not relate to policy but rather to improving relations between the agencies working on these matters. "It was in the context of, 'Why are we having problems communicating?' It was, 'Why are we having trouble talking to one another?' We didn't need Dexter to sit in and hear that."
Retorts Lehtinen: "It certainly looks like policy matters. Since they do it in the shade, we're expected to believe their representation. I don't know why they did it. Why open themselves up to this criticism unless they're doing what we're worried they're doing?"
The Miccosukees' new complaint befuddles Poole. "I don't know what their intent is," he says. "I know that [Miccosukee tribal chairman] Billy Cypress wants to do the right thing for the Everglades. But that kind of stuff? I don't think it helps.