The Last of the Indian Wars

The fight may be about houses in the Everglades, but the battle is about Miccosukee independence by paula park

Before coming south, Ring managed the Delaware River Gap National Recreation Area. The two assignments are similar because both are bordered by urban areas whose political leaders and communities have a stake in the park. But there are no Indians at the Gap, nor are there thorny environmental problems such as those plaguing the Everglades.

The superintendent speaks only reluctantly about the Miccosukees' housing problem. The matter is in litigation, and Hall, the legal specialist, has encouraged him to keep quiet. But it's clear his teeth are slightly clenched behind his greet-the-public smile when he says, "Situations are better solved directly between people. It was the tribe that chose to be [in litigation]. We are doing our best to fulfill the responsibility we are given in administering the park service in trust for the United States. It's not easy. It's never easy in balancing priorities and use mandates."

The park service asked federal Judge Edward Davis to dismiss the Miccosukees' lawsuit nearly a year after it was filed, claiming the park service had no special responsibility to the tribe and that Ring's decisions were well within his rights as superintendent -- even when he opted not to respond to the Miccosukees' request for housing. "The [Miccosukees'] permit area is not property that is held in trust for the benefit of the tribe. It is property of the United States directed by Congress to be managed by the park," the park's attorney argued.

The Indians' housing pads are thirteen-foot-high mounds of dirt intended to ensure that septic tanks don't empty directly into Everglades waters. Still, Ring and other park officials worry that even a slight change in water quality caused by effluent could be harmful to the vegetation and wildlife; additionally, the housing could block flows of fresh water that the Army Corps of Engineers plans to restore in the area.

But during a hearing in August 1995, a microbiologist hired by the park itself testified that the Miccosukees' proposed dwellings would not harm the water quality south of the construction sites. The Indians' attorney, Juan Vargas, asked Professor Ron Jones from Florida International University what effect current Miccosukee developments had on the sawgrass swamps. Jones answered, "My opinion is that there is no impact on water quality either evidenced by the actual values for the water or by any changes in vegetation itself."

Vargas: "With respect now to specifically adding these [65] housing [units] and housing pads, will that housing ... have any impact on water quality to the south?"

Jones: "There's no reason to believe it will."
An ecologist for the tribe testified that developments within the national park would have a more damaging effect on the flow of water through the park than would the tribe's new houses. The park service maintains 301 buildings, including a 102-room motel; it also has surfaced 82 miles of roadway. More than one million visitors annually enter the park. "The level of service caused by the construction of the 65 house pads appears to be quite minor in proportion to the overall level of commercial activity that goes on in the park," said Michael Jones, an ecologist for AMS Engineering in Dade County.

The park presented only one witness at that August hearing: Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Belli, who warned that if improperly planned or constructed, the housing development could permanently scar the Everglades.

Attorney Brett Birdsong, representing the government, asked Belli: "If the tribe were to go out there on Loop Road tomorrow and start building house pads before the park has had an opportunity to assess it in the context of a comprehensive land-use plan, can you describe what some of the harm to the park might be?"

Belli: "Well, there could be irreparable harm ... if for some reason the design of that project was found deficient. It would be very difficult to remove the housing pad. But even if you could, removing the fill pad could provide other detriments in terms of release of nutrients or destruction of vegetation."

Judge Davis refused to dismiss the lawsuit, but he also denied a request by the Miccosukees to stop the park from interfering with the housing construction.

In May 1996 the Corps of Engineers decided to issue the Indians' dredge-and-fill permit for all 65 houses. Though the Indians still couldn't build without the park's permission, the decision gave their cause credibility. When the Corps' Col. Terry Rice informed Ring of his decision, he also gave him a stern admonishment: "This housing issue is only symptomatic of what I see as a much larger challenge. The contention, due largely to disputed rights of the Miccosukees in the Special Use Permit Area, that exists between the tribe and the park is very disruptive to our achieving our mutual goals of South Florida ecosystem restoration.... The solution may be as easy as Interior formalizing the SUPA as a permanent home for the Miccosukees and integrating the tribe into the management of the park while the Miccosukees agree to a comprehensive build-out plan."

For the last four years the Miccosukees' tenacious litigation has been headed by Dexter Lehtinen, the former acting U.S. Attorney in Miami. The politically connected Lehtinen had a reputation as a zealous prosecutor with a macho streak, and critics accuse him of manipulating Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress, accruing ever-higher legal fees.

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