Not Cleared for Takeoff

If a national coalition of environmental groups has its way, Homestead Air Force Base won't be handed over to private developers just yet

Biscayne National Park Superintendent Richard Frost has gone a step further. At a public meeting in November, he declared his qualified support for a supplemental EIS. "What I said was the shortcomings of the [original EIS] needed to be examined carefully and that a [supplemental EIS] is one of the ways that can be done effectively."

State environmental regulators also have their own worries about the planned development of the air base. They are primarily concerned that sufficient safeguards be built into the plan to protect Biscayne Bay against polluted runoff. This past week representatives from the South Florida Water Management District and Dade County began meeting to resolve the state's concerns.

Another series of meetings related to South Dade is also underway. State, county, and local officials, as well as community, agricultural, and business representatives, are trying to plan and control future development in South Dade, both related and unrelated to the air base. Several participants believe that this planning process will address many of the litigation-minded environmentalists' concerns about industrial and residential buildout around the base.

But many members of the environmental coalition pressuring the White House don't trust those negotiations to avert environmental doom. After all, they point out, the discussions aren't expected to produce a long-range development plan until the year 2000, by which time development on and around the base may be well under way.

Alan Farago, a member of the Sierra Club Miami Group, argues that South Florida is witnessing a debilitating "devolution of authority" from the federal government to state and local government. The state, he contends, is hampered by flimsy environmental laws. And Farago accuses Dade governmental leaders of being weak-willed; he specifically faults the county commission for approving a fast-track process for the base instead of a more deliberate, conventional route.

"The further you go from the federal government to the local level, the greater the chances that the public interest will be compromised," he argues. "It's amounting to one huge ripoff that is going to destroy a national park. The federal government is going to say that we shouldn't worry too much because the state process is going to take care of everything. But the state law [that governs the base transfer] is so general that it will not protect the environmental interests, and the Dade County Commission has turned a blind eye to its responsibility for regional and environmental issues. I think that there's no reason, based on past performance, to believe that anything will happen except that the public interest gets screwed."

Not far from the minds of many involved in the current struggle is a similar fight three decades ago. In 1970 a civic uprising killed an international jetport under construction in what is today Big Cypress National Preserve, just off the Tamiami Trail. Joe Browder, now an environmental consultant in Washington, D.C., spearheaded the opposition as the region's representative for the National Audubon Society. He sees a perturbing irony in the current situation: The jetport fight, he says, was largely responsible for the enactment of the federal legislation that requires a thorough EIS.

"Congressional leaders were so concerned that on the one hand the Department of the Interior had invested a lot of federal dollars to establish a national park and maintain it, and on the other hand the Department of Transportation was handing federal money to Dade County to build a new airport to damage the national park, that they decided there was a need for a law that would force federal agencies to look at the environmental consequences of their actions," he recalls. "There's no way to pretend that a major commercial airport at the old Homestead Air Force Base is consistent with the standards to protect Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park.

"It's like some institutions never learn.

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