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By Kyle Munzenrieder
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By Luther Campbell
It's a desolate scene in a desolate moment in America's economy. When I meet Johnson at city hall, a few blocks down the road, she admits up front she's worried about her town.
"I've never seen it this bad," Johnson says. "I used to ride through town and people were sitting on their front porches, enjoying life even if they didn't have much. You don't see that anymore." The recession has killed the few jobs the town offered outside the sugar industry.
A short, stylish woman with elaborately coiffed curls and thick-framed glasses, Johnson was raised in South Bay. She remembers the town where she grew up as a quiet Southern village where people looked out for each other. But it was also a community that never forgot the devastating hurricane of 1928. Johnson's neighbors had relatives who personally survived that flood.
When Johnson was elected to the city commission in 2008, she certainly never forgot the government once neglected her people so badly that 2,500 died. That's why she marched up to Crist to demand that he not forget South Bay in his new Everglades plans. That's why she's been busing her neighbors in matching "Save Our Jobs" T-shirts to every county board meeting she can schedule.
"We just get lost in the saw grass out here," she says. "We understand that restoration is important, but sometimes it's stressful for us when we see more attention placed on alligators than people."
Johnson represents one of the poorest municipalities in all of South Florida — but she has a message of hope for the future of her town. As usual in these parts, it's a message that's already stirring deep opposition among environmentalists.
For the first time since she took office, Johnson is optimistic. She has a plan to bring hundreds of new jobs to South Bay. Her eyes gleam behind her glasses as she explains it.
Here's the idea: In a few years, a renovated Panama Canal will bring a new class of supersize cargo ships through the Caribbean. In South Florida, that will mean a major boost in cargo sent ashore in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Johnson wants to build an "inland port" right down the road — on a parcel of Florida Crystals land next to U.S. 27. Ships could unload in Miami, send the goods by truck or train to South Bay's inland port, and quickly free up docks again for more stuff.
Everglades advocates have already declared the plan a disaster in the making.
This past April, the Palm Beach County Commission met to vote on a zoning change for the port. The chamber's seats were filled with South Bay residents in their matching T-shirts, shuttled in by Johnson. Environmentalists were also there in force.
Drew Martin, a member of the Sierra Club, looked at the South Bay residents in their "Save Our Jobs" tees and said from the podium: "I feel bad for these people, I really do. But this project would put our restoration plans back by years."
Johnson quickly grabbed the podium after he finished. "We don't need pity," she scoffed. "We need jobs."
The exchange threw the conflict at the heart of Everglades battles into sharp relief. Environmentalists see the land between Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park as a key piece to put the River of Grass back the way it was. The people who live on that land see it as their home and want to earn a decent living.
Johnson says she supports restoration. But she fears that everyone living on the coasts forgets the people in the middle of the Glades. Without the inland port or U.S. Sugar, her town could be even worse off than it is today. The port could also boost the economies of Miami and Fort Lauderdale by upping the volume of cargo coming through, she says.
"I don't think the environmentalists were prepared for how strongly we all stood behind this," Johnson says. "But just the idea of having an inland port, knowing that hotels and restaurants and housing would come with it..."
Johnson trails off for a minute. "It's about survival for us. Flat-out survival."
A blue heron bends its curlicue neck into its breast and wades cautiously along the bank. A crocodile's nose glides through the black current. Wind rustles the saw grass.
I toss my line into the water and watch Rick Persson whistle another perfect cast into the murky shallows.
More than the sugar battles in Okeelanta, the angst over jobs in Pahokee, and the arguments over inland ports in South Bay, the war over this single placid strip of water shows the mixed-up approach we take to saving the Glades.
Persson and his fishing partner, Al Ovies, make a convincing argument that undoing our damage here doesn't have to mean divorcing ourselves from the land.
Leaning on the boat's prow, Ovies, a jovial Cuban-American with a bushy mustache and a custom-made sportfishing jacket, casts his line into a deeper pool. He and Persson met in a bass fishing club in the 1980s. They bonded in the late 1990s over their dismay about the Army Corps of Engineers' unveiled plan to backfill the L-67A canal. Both men had fished the man-made stream for decades. Both also believed the Corps' plan was rash and untested. In 2001, they formed a coalition to save the canals. They began attending South Florida Water Management District meetings and talking to Corps officials.