By Ryan Yousefi
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With the decision on the future of Homestead Air Force Base now less than three weeks away, newspapers around the state have begun publishing editorials urging President Clinton to kill Miami-Dade County's efforts to transform the base into a major commercial airport. The editorials reflect growing public sentiment that an airport located between two national parks is both foolhardy and shortsighted. The Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force reported receiving thousands of written comments on the proposed airport. According to the FAA and the air force, "about 200 persons and organizations wrote to express support for the proposed airport while over 7000 letters and postcards were received expressing opposition to the airport or supporting another alternative."
The alternative most often cited is the Collier-Hoover plan, which calls for developing the base into an office park and retail complex, also featuring a resort hotel with two golf courses, research and educational facilities, and a large aquarium.
The strongest supporter for turning the base into an airport, however, remains Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, though his influence within the Clinton White House likely has evaporated following his abandonment of Al Gore's presidential bid. But Penelas and the proposed developer of the base, a group known by the acronym HABDI, are not without clout. HABDI has hired one of the most influential lobbying firms in Washington to exert influence in the corridors of power. In addition Sen. Bob Graham is quietly trying to manipulate the decision in favor of an airport.
Those opposed to endangering the Everglades and Biscayne Bay with an airport include every major environmental group in the nation, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner, newly elected Sen. Bill Nelson, and U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, whose district includes the Everglades.
Locally the Miami Heraldand WPLG-TV (Channel 10) have editorialized against the airport plan. The Herald endorsed the Collier-Hoover plan while WPLG simply blasted the airport proposal as a "bad idea." In recent weeks they have been joined by other newspapers across the state. (This trend is likely to spread to newspapers nationwide in the coming days. On December 22 the New York Times led the way with a forceful editorial headlined "Scuttle the Everglades Airport.")
These out-of-town newspaper editorials are an important development and reinforce the fact that decisions regarding the Everglades are not merely a provincial concern. National parks are just that: national treasures owned by the American people and deserving of protection so future generations may enjoy them as well.
"As one of his last acts in office, President Clinton should save Everglades and Biscayne national parks and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from having a major airport as their neighbor," wrote the Palm Beach Post. "Hurricane Andrew destroyed the air base, already militarily obsolete, along with nearby neighborhoods. Supporters argue that the airport would give the region an economic boost.
"The economic boost would go to the project's influential backers," the Post noted. "The county quickly gave lease rights, without bidding, to Homestead Air Base Development, Inc., dominated by Miami-Dade's Latin Builders Association.
"Biscayne National Park is 1.5 miles east of the proposed airport. Everglades National Park is 8.5 miles west of the site. The airport would generate 230,000 flights a year during its first phase, a total that could rise to 400,000 with a second runway. Jet traffic does not mix with the parks. Degrading the Everglades as the state prepares to spend $4 billion on restoration does not make sense.
"Governor Bush and Sen. Bob Graham, who so strongly supported Everglades restoration, have been silent. Responsibility for protecting the parks and the neighbors who oppose the airport therefore falls to President Clinton. He should convey the land to the Interior Department, which oversees national parks and could approve the Hoover-Collier plan. Miami-Dade can find some other location for airport expansion and some other means of political payoff."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel was equally strong: "If President Clinton is seeking a South Florida legacy, he should look toward Homestead Air Force Base. He should use his executive authority to keep the installation out of the hands of local developers who want to turn it into a commercial airport. The nation's parks are places to get away from the sounds, smells, sights, and activity of urban life. Airports and serenity hardly go hand-in-hand.
"Clinton could add to his record of environmental preservation by using the “preferred alternatives' section of a U.S. Air Force study to make sure the land is developed in a more appropriate way. The move would save the air force and the Federal Aviation Administration from making the big mistake of giving the base to Miami-Dade County for the new airport."
The News Press in Fort Myers implored its readers to call the White House and urge the president to oppose the airport. "This is one of the worst places imaginable for an airport, especially since Florida will be campaigning for years in Washington for federal money to restore the Everglades, and especially since an alternative plan for redeveloping the base exists," the paper argued. "Now is a key time to contact these officials and let them know there is a better way to stimulate Dade County's economy than building an airport between two national parks, each unique, each already dealing with serious threats."
The Tampa Tribune described the airport plan as "insidious.
"Certain interests are making a determined effort to convert the decommissioned Homestead Air Force Base into a huge commercial airport, which would have more than 600 flights a day," the paper stated. "The massive facility would be far more intrusive than the base, which had only a handful of flights a day. It is hard to imagine a worse location for the complex -- between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park and only ten miles from the Florida Keys.
"The thundering noise of so many jets over Biscayne and the Everglades would unquestionably diminish, not to say ruin, the recreational experience of visitors to those wildernesses. According to an environmental review, the sound of jets at Biscayne National Park Visitors Center would be the equivalent of the station-rattling roar of a New York subway train.
"Moreover the airport would result in air and water pollution from both runoff and aircraft emissions. Environmentalists estimate the airport and related development would emit about seven tons of pollutants into the air daily. Much of this, including lead, would inevitably wash into nearby waters.
"Perhaps most damaging, the commercial airport would ignite development in the mostly agricultural area, causing construction to sprawl onto the edge of Everglades National Park, destroying more habitat and resulting in even more threats to the River of Grass. Already transportation officials are discussing building a major highway through the area should the commercial airport be built.
"This project simply makes no sense," the Tampa Tribune concluded, "which is the reason the Interior Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and every major conservation group oppose it. The Monroe County Commission, recognizing how the project could harm the Florida Keys, also is against it. There are other, less damaging sites for an airport.
"An air force assessment minimized the airport's environmental threat, saying it could be made compatible with nearby parks. That is an incredible assertion. But the analysis also noted the strong advantages of converting the base into the low-impact business-tourist center.
"The decision over the base's future ultimately will be made by the White House. President Clinton took a historic step toward saving the Everglades by signing the restoration legislation. He could make sure that his good work on behalf of the Everglades is not reversed by rejecting this plan to build a commercial airport in South Florida's environmental heart."
What do you think? Let President Clinton know how you feel about the air base and whether it should be turned into a commercial airport. You can contact the White House by calling 800-663-9566 or 202-456-1414. Follow the prompts to a White House comments-line operator, who will register your opinion.
If you wish to send a letter, the fax number is 202-456-2461. Or send an e-mail to: email@example.com
Next week: Debunking the big myth that Homestead Air Force Base, for economic reasons, urgently needs to be developed as a commercial airport.