"It'll Never Get Off the Ground"

With nothing to show after four years but bitterness and bickering, the plan to turn Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport has gone from national model to national embarrassment

And, the activists maintain, South Florida's two national parks, Everglades and Biscayne, would be heading quickly toward ruin.

It was Lange's close reading of a federal environmental document that helped entangle the base conveyance. The study, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), was undertaken by the air force in 1993 (and completed less than a year later) to assess the environmental repercussions of developing a commercial airport on the base. Required by federal law, such studies are designed to analyze the potential consequences of federal actions; they become the basis of public discussion and agency planning and help set limits on the development process.

Lange, a 44-year-old former stockbroker and now self-described Coconut Grove housewife, noticed several major deficiencies in the base study. For one thing, it inadequately evaluated the environmental impacts of noise, pollution, and secondary development. To make matters worse, it was based on a plan for a smaller airport, having been prepared months before HABDI submitted its proposal for the 1360-acre property, which is to include not only an international airport but also office buildings, warehouses, and hotels. Further, Lange and her fellow activists concluded, a big new airport was in conflict with the federal government's one-billion-dollar Everglades restoration plans.

This past fall, just as federal officials were preparing to transfer the base to the county, a coalition of regional and national conservation groups demanded that the air force redo the study or face a lawsuit. The demand came in the form of a letter to Secretary of Defense William Perry (who was replaced by William Cohen earlier this year) that the environmentalists also copied widely throughout the upper echelons of the federal government. It caught the White House by surprise. "It was the first time in our experience that the Homestead issue and the Everglades issue were brought together," admits Thomas C. Jensen, who was then an associate director of President Clinton's environmental advisory committee. "In retrospect, it's a little hard to know how we missed it. I think the most appropriate explanation is that there were government officials in South Florida and in the federal agencies aware of the potential for a problem, but the issue had not risen to crisis level yet. Some issues just stay below the radar for a very long time."

After a series of high-level meetings, the administration agreed to review the EIS to assess whether there was a need for more scrutiny. According to Jensen, President Clinton personally signed off on the decision. The review is expected to be completed by August; a supplemental EIS, if called for, would take at least another twelve to eighteen months. And the base transfer, meanwhile, would have to wait.

The environmentalists have also contested the transfer at the state and local levels, where the essence of their challenge remains the same: Complete the necessary environmental studies before deeding the land to the county, issuing permits, and starting construction.

At the core of the conservationists' opposition is concern for the well-being of Biscayne National Park, located in Atlantic waters two miles east of the base, and Everglades National Park, ten miles to the west. This concern has mobilized an impressive amount of activity among a broad-based coalition of local, regional, and national groups in South Florida, Tallahassee, Washington, D.C., and New York. And banish visions of Birkenstocks and tree-hugging hippies: This campaign comes complete with lawyers, lobbyists, a burgeoning war chest -- and even its own Washington insider or two.

"It's not a fringe action," comments Nathaniel Reed, a very unfringelike environmentalist from Hobe Sound who was Assistant Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Nixon and Ford and who is seemingly on a first-name basis with at least half of political Washington, D.C. "This is a very serious issue, and we're prepared to fight it out." Environmentalists are drumming up support around the region; they have even drawn the wealthy denizens of Key Largo's Ocean Reef Club into the fray by raising the specter of a polluted Biscayne Bay and of commercial jets buzzing the posh resort.

But the environmental bloc is far from homogenous. For example, while there's consensus among the dozens of groups involved in Everglades restoration that the federal government should undertake a supplemental EIS, there's no consensus about how to effect this end. Only fifteen groups signed on to a letter to the air force threatening a lawsuit if a supplemental EIS isn't completed. Most notable for its absence was the deep-pocketed and influential National Audubon Society, which maintains an office in Miami devoted to Everglades restoration issues. (The local and state Audubon groups, Tropical Audubon and Florida Audubon, also deferred.) The abstentions engendered resentment among other environmental groups whose leaders feel that nothing short of a supplemental EIS will stave off a federal lawsuit and who believe the effort to check the base development needs a more unified front.

A frustrated Stuart Strahl, executive director of National Audubon's Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Campaign, says that before the demand letter was sent to Perry, his group had publicly announced its desire for a supplemental EIS in a more benign missive to Clinton signed by more than 40 environmental groups. Litigation, Strahl says, didn't seem to be the most constructive way to proceed. As a result he has had to fend off accusations that he has sold out to the developers. "I've listened to enough conference calls and veiled threats and accusations that we're receiving large donations from some numbered account," he grumbles.

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