Great Job, Terry! Now Pack Your Bags

Everyone seems to love the Florida commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. So why do his superiors want him to leave?

Col. Terry L. Rice of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appears to have -- as they say in wildlife documentaries -- no natural predators. This is particularly surprising considering that he sits at the center of the complicated and highly politicized Everglades restoration effort. As the commander of the Army Corps district that includes Florida, he is responsible for coordinating federal involvement in the massive task of replumbing, and thereby saving, the River of Grass.

By all accounts Rice is doing a remarkable job, not only in handling the millions of federal dollars entrusted to him but, more important, by bridging the sometimes enormous divides between the various factions that have much at stake in the project: the agricultural and development industries, environmental activists, several governments, and the Native Americans who call the Everglades home.

After three commendable years in the post, though, Rice is about to lose his job. Army policy dictates that district commanders vacate their positions after two years. In 1994 Rice took over command of the district, which is based in Jacksonville; his stay was extended an extra year. He is scheduled to step down from the commandership this August and move elsewhere in the department, allowing for a new colonel to take over.

The rotation is happening at a critical juncture in Everglades restoration: Congress has demanded that a full restoration blueprint be completed within the next two years. The thought of losing Rice soon has generated a groundswell of support among many participants in the endeavor and has prompted a heavy lobbying effort to retain him. Most vocal in their backing of Rice have been the environmental activists, a community that once regarded the Army Corps of Engineers as a bureaucratic incarnation of the devil.

"[Rice] has shown vision and vigor," declares Nathaniel Reed, a member of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District and a long-time advocate for the environment. "His ability to work with all sides of the issue is unparalleled, and he tells it like it is to the development, agricultural, and environmental communities." Reed and his environmental colleagues have made their case to everyone who might have a say in the matter: from the governor's office to Florida's congressional delegation, on through the upper reaches of both the Pentagon and the Department of the Interior to the White House.

While not as vociferous, other parties have made their feelings felt too. Malcolm Wade, vice president of U.S. Sugar Corporation, says that he and his associates have encouraged their industry representatives in Washington, D.C., to campaign on Rice's behalf. "The agricultural industry's perspective is that we've got a tremendous amount of work to do, and we're probably better off with the continuity that would come with keeping him," Wade explains. "Terry's been doing a pretty good job among all the groups. He's trying to be objective and he's gained a lot of knowledge."

The decision about whether to keep Rice in Florida rests with his military superiors, but there's speculation that, owing to the sensitivity of this decision, President Clinton may make the final call. "We're still expecting the normal rotation, for Colonel Rice to be departing Jacksonville this summer," reports Corps spokeswoman Carol Sanders. An extended tenure for Rice would apparently be a first for any district commander.

Rice appears to have the support of Clinton's environmental adviser, Kathleen McGinty. She was in South Florida this past month to address the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of 40 regional and national environmental organizations. Following her speech, several coalition members publicly declared their support for Rice and urged the president, through McGinty, to keep Rice on. "I can only second that," responded McGinty, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Rice is ever the good soldier and diplomat when questioned about whether he wants to remain and whether he'll be given a choice to stay. "If permitted to stay, I'll stay," he says courteously but matter-of-factly during an interview two weeks ago while on a stopover in Miami. The 49-year-old colonel looks like a grown-up Boy Scout, his hair neat, face youthful, uniform pressed and shiny.

A graduate of West Point with a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering from Colorado State University, he served tours of duty in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. As district commander in Jacksonville, Rice oversees all Corps activities in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and heads a staff of about 850. The jurisdiction includes thirteen major harbors and many smaller ones, 2000 miles of waterway, 150 miles of beaches, four major flood-control systems, 8000 dredging-permit requests a year, and emergency hurricane response. That said, Rice estimates the Everglades restoration work consumes about 50 percent of his time.

The colonel credits his predecessor Col. Terrence "Rock" Salt for "paving the way," but admits he didn't exactly wander into a lovefest. "We deeply mistrusted the Army Corps of Engineers," recalls Barbara Lange, vice president of Friends of the Everglades, a group now seated firmly on the Rice bandwagon. "These were the guys who were draining the Everglades, ditching it, and diking it for every special interest coming down the pike! Marjory Stoneman Douglas put it best when she said, 'What is the Army Corps of Engineers trying to do? Declare war on the people of the United States?'"

Rice says his approach to the job has been threefold: to emphasize teamwork among the various parties; to confront the problems of Everglades restoration by carefully balancing the needs of the natural system with those of the urban development, agriculture, and the Native American communities; and to study solutions before applying them. While these may seem like painfully obvious strategies to most people, they are positively revolutionary for the Army Corps, which historically has been regarded as ruled more by brawn than brain. "We would come in and say, 'Tell us what the problem is.' We told you what the solution was, we did it, and then we told you to like it," chuckles Rice. Comments Nathaniel Reed: "[Rice] is the first young Army Corps of Engineers officer who fully understands what ecosystem restoration offers to the Corps, whose long history of dredging, drilling, and diking is coming to an end."

Already Rice's holistic approach to the monumental task -- arguably the largest environmental restoration project in human history -- has become a model for similar undertakings elsewhere. Representatives from foreign governments have met with Rice to study his work -- the president of Paraguay is scheduled to drop by Jacksonville soon -- and the project is the envy of Army Corps districts elsewhere: "They're calling from other districts saying, 'How'd you get this to work?'" Rice states.

Through Everglades restoration, Rice claims, the Corps is learning how to do business differently, its culture changing slowly but perceptibly. "There's no question we're pushing every environmental envelope that can be pushed," he says.

But there may be no better or more immediate measure of the military's progress than the top brass's decision on the matter of Rice's immediate future.

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