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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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As Bill Clinton's presidency draws to a close, one of his last acts will be to decide the future of Homestead Air Force Base. Miami-Dade County is pushing to have the base turned into a major commercial airport, while environmentalists oppose such a plan, arguing the base's location between Everglades and Biscayne national parks makes it unsuitable for such development. In many ways Clinton's decision is reminiscent of a choice made by President Richard Nixon exactly 30 years ago involving a proposal to build a jetport in the Big Cypress area of the Everglades. The situations are eerily similar.
Nathaniel Reed recalls the moment well. Early January 1970. He was sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with his boss, Gov. Claude Kirk, the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction. Also present were Interior Secretary Walter Hickel and Department of Transportation Secretary John Volpe.
As the governor's chief environmental advisor, Reed was waiting to meet President Nixon regarding the future of one of the most controversial endeavors in Florida's history: the building of a jetport in the middle of the Everglades in what was known as the Big Cypress swamp.
The fight over the jetport had been raging in South Florida for more than two years. Environmentalists in the state, led by Joe Browder and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, railed against the proposed facility, which already was under construction at the time of Reed's White House meeting. Bulldozers and construction crews had broken ground in October 1968 and had completed a two-mile-long runway, the first of several landing strips in what was envisioned to be the largest airport in the world.
The jetport, located 50 miles west of downtown Miami and just north of the Tamiami Trail, was to cover 39 square miles of marshland, making it four times larger than Miami International Airport. County officials predicted a takeoff or landing every 30 seconds. A high-speed rail line would link the airport to Miami. Led by Dade County Mayor Charles Hall, construction of the facility was promoted as essential to the area's economic well-being.
Governor Kirk was initially supportive of the plan, bowing to South Florida's politicians and business leaders. Reed, however, changed the governor's mind. As Reed remembers it, he received a call one day in 1969 from Bob Padrick, a Gulf Coast Chevrolet dealer who served on the South Florida Water Management District. "Bob called and told me that I had to see for myself what was happening in Big Cypress," Reed says.
So Reed arranged for a state plane to take him over the construction site. "I was absolutely dumbfounded by what I saw," he recalls. "Here in the middle of Big Cypress were bulldozers knocking down trees and tearing through the land. When I got back to Tallahassee, I told Governor Kirk that we'd been had. We were assured by Dade County the impact would be negligible. Clearly that was not the case.
"The governor said to me: “Oh God, Reed, I've already come out in support of the jetport.' He said he had campaigned on a pledge of increasing business developments and creating new jobs, which this project was going to do. But I told him he had to do something." The governor finally agreed, temporarily halting construction so he could have a chance to examine it more closely.
Reed and Padrick may have been the first people with real power to raise concerns about the jetport, but they certainly weren't the first to object to it. "We started working to oppose it as soon as we heard that the county and developers were assembling real estate out there," says Joe Browder, who at the time was president of the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. "The campaign to stop the jetport started before there was any construction." One of those enlisted early in the fight was Miami attorney Dan Paul. "The Miami Herald said we were impeding the economic engine of the county," Paul recounts. "I was told that I should be dropped in the middle of the Everglades with a butterfly net."
In those early days of the fight, Browder brought together an unlikely coalition of activists, including hunters and Miccosukee Indians. (Browder's efforts were beautifully documented in the 1993 children's book, Save the Everglades, written by Judith Bauer Stamper.) Finally he called on the first lady of the Everglades, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The scene is recreated in Stamper's book:
"Finally, though, Joe put down his cup [of tea] and began to talk. He explained that he needed her help in the fight against the jetport. He brought up her book on the Everglades and how well known she was. He knew how much she loved the park. He said, “If the jetport is built and the land is drained, the water for the Everglades will be polluted. Wildlife will disappear. You are more famous than anyone. People will respect you. They will listen to you.'
"Mrs. Douglas smiled. “Just because I wrote a book doesn't mean they'll listen to me. I'm just one person. People don't listen to one person about anything. They listen to organizations.'
"Now it was Joe's turn to smile. “So why don't you start an organization?' he asked."
Before she could answer, Browder drove Douglas to the construction site.
"As they drove through the park the sweet sounds of mockingbirds and wrens filled the air. Mrs. Douglas spotted an otter playing in the canal along the side of the road. It slid down the side of the canal and then floated on its back, basking in the warm sunshine.
"As they listened to the birds and watched the otter they grew quiet. Each of them was reminded once again of how much there was to love about the park. They knew it would be destroyed if the jetport was built.
"At last they reached the jetport site. Joe led Mrs. Douglas to the place where the airstrip was being built. She looked around at the fallen trees and the bald patches of land. She saw the swampland torn apart and drained.
"That's all it took."
A short time later Douglas announced that she was forming an organization to fight the jetport. The group would be called Friends of the Everglades.
By the fall of 1969 the plan of attack was clear. While Browder and Douglas helped educate the public, not just in Florida but throughout the nation, as to the threat posed by the jetport, Reed strode through the corridors of power in Tallahassee and Washington.
Following the governor's order to temporarily halt construction of the jetport, Reed and Browder, working with a cast of scientists and other experts, created a list of 112 questions they wanted Dade County to address. At a subsequent public meeting to hear the county's response to those questions, Reed became infuriated when it became clear county officials refused to give serious consideration to the environmental concerns.
"You are wasting our time," Reed recalls chiding Mayor Charles Hall before a packed audience. "The mayor went ballistic." Hall called Reed and Browder "white militants" and told them to "go to hell." Eventually, Reed says, the mayor became so angry he threw his chair across the stage and stormed out of the meeting.
Through the governor Reed retaliated by yanking all state-required permits for the jetport. Both sides began lobbying Washington for assistance. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration advocated in favor of building the airport. Reed and the governor, meanwhile, lobbied the U.S. Department of the Interior and found an ally in Walter Hickel.
Ironically environmentalists had opposed Hickel's nomination as Interior Secretary, citing his abysmal record as governor of Alaska. But after winning Senate confirmation to the post, Hickel decided his first official trip would be a two-day camping adventure in the Everglades. Reed acted as tour guide, and remembers how, at the end of the first day, Hickel and Governor Kirk polished off a bottle of whiskey at their campsite and then jumped into canoes in the middle of the night for a tour of Lostmans River, about 25 miles south of Everglades City. "They were bombed out of their minds, and they had these park rangers with them, and they kept asking the rangers what an alligator roar sounds like, and then they'd try to mimic one," Reed says, laughing at the memory. "They just howled away." Hickel ended up proving to be a valuable ally in Kirk's fight against the jetport.
Browder and the National Audubon Society had their own contacts as well. The national president of the society helped convince Nixon's chief of staff, John Erlichman, that the jetport was a mistake.
Environmentalists found an unexpected friend in Julie Nixon. The president sent his daughter on a "fact-finding mission" to the Everglades during the jetport debate. (An alligator hunter was hired by the Secret Service to walk in front of her and scare off any threatening creatures.) Browder prepared a wonderful tour for her, and she returned to Washington opposed to the jetport.
In January 1970 Reed and Kirk were summoned to the White House. After waiting a short time in the Roosevelt Room with Hickel, Transportation Secretary Volpe, and others, Reed says Erlichman suddenly burst into the room and announced that the president had made a decision: The jetport was dead.
Rather than couch the decision in environmental terms, Reed recalls Erlichman saying that the president didn't trust what was happening with the jetport because he believed it was part of a play by Dade County Democrats to get rich from land speculation. As Erlichman was speaking, Nixon walked in. He told the group his decision needed to remain secret for a few days. Volpe would have to privately brief the mayor in Dade County; he also needed to alert key members of Congress. "I don't want any showboating," Reed says Nixon commanded.
As they were leaving the White House, Hickel offered the governor and Reed a ride to the airport. "We hadn't gotten 250 yards from the White House," Reed says, "when Hickel gives Kirk a big slap on the knee and says, “Who makes the first call?' Kirk says, “I'll flip you for it.' Kirk calls heads and it turns out to be tails, and so Hickel picks up his car phone starts to dial the chief environmental writer for the New York Times. And I said, “I thought we were sworn to secrecy back there.' And Hickel says, “Nathaniel, you don't understand. We are in the middle of one of the great environmental victories of all time. We can't keep it to ourselves.'" Besides, once word of the decision was leaked, there would be no turning back.
The next morning the story was on the front page of the Times. A short time later, Reed fielded a call from Erlichman, who was furious at Hickel and Kirk. According to Reed the president's aide grumbled, "Dealing with those two juvenile delinquents is going to drive me stark-raving mad."
Today the jetport site is used as a training center for airline pilots practicing takeoffs and landings.
In 1971 Reed left the governor's office and went to work for Hickel as an assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, where he helped develop the plan for the federal government to buy the Big Cypress swamp. The purchase was completed in 1974, and the name was changed to the Big Cypress National Preserve.
As the debate over Homestead Air Force Base heats up in the coming weeks, the names may have changed, but the story remains essentially the same. The FAA is pushing for the development of Homestead, as is the county mayor, who makes the same desperate argument his predecessor did 30 years ago about the county's economic future.
Instead of shady Democratic land speculators waiting to cash in, we have a pack of mostly Republican developers being handed a no-bid sweetheart contract that allows them to cash in on a new airport. "This is just plain old big-city greed," Browder says today.
On the environmental side of the issue, current U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has come out strongly against an airport in Homestead, as has Carol Browner, administrator of Environmental Protection Agency, an agency created, coincidentally, by Nixon. Still lurking in the background, though perhaps not as prominently, are Browder, Reed, and in spirit at least, the memory of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Only one question now remains: Will President Bill Clinton fulfill destiny's role?