Old War, New Battle
In 1814 Andrew Jackson -- a freshly minted general on his way to an undistinguished presidency -- chased the Seminole Indians into Florida. For most of the next century, federal troops continued to hunt Native Americans, pushing them farther and farther south, into the swampy fringe of the continent. Most of the Indians were killed. Others were forced to relocate onto reservations in Florida and Oklahoma.
The most stubborn of the Seminoles, those who later came to be known as the Miccosukee, hid out in the Everglades, a region that provided safe haven precisely because it was so utterly inhospitable.
But in 1947 the federal government opened Everglades National Park. The Indians were forcibly removed from the newly formed park, even though much of the land had been pledged to them under a previous peace agreement.
For reasons that remain unclear, the displaced Indians settled on a 330-acre strip on the northern border of the park in West Dade, along the road called Tamiami Trail. Though the Miccosukee have since been granted a 75,000-acre reservation to the north, most of the tribe's 373 members still live within park boundaries. They do not own the land, but have been allowed to build a tribal headquarters, school, shops, and homes there. In fact, any construction in this so-called special use permit area requires the consent of the park superintendent.
As the two groups most dependent on the survival of the Everglades, the Miccosukee and park staff would seem natural allies, especially in this era of environmental crisis. But in the past year, the uneasy alliance between Indians and park rangers has been replaced by mistrust and strident allegations, not to mention a legal battle that pits the rights of a powerful federal agency against a small but stubborn Indian nation.
At issue are the Miccosukees' efforts to make their little patch of Everglades more comfortable -- by building 65 more homes. In October the tribe brought a federal suit against park superintendent Richard Ring, aimed at forcing Ring to act on the request, which the Miccosukee claim he has ignored for two and a half years.
"The tribe never had this problem with other agencies or previous superintendents," says Angel Cortinas, one of a team of lawyers representing the Miccosukee. "Unfortunately Superintendent Ring has made it his policy to get rid of the Indians in the park. He seems to feel that their rights to their land are temporary."
Cortnas maintains that Ring was also responsible for last month's flooding -- which left many Miccosukees knee-deep in water -- because he refused to approve measures that might have lowered water levels. "He flooded Indian land on purpose," is how Cortinas puts it.
Ring sounds genuinely bemused by both claims. "I have no hidden agenda with regard to the Miccosukee tribe," he says. "And no intention of seeing them removed from the park. Nor would I ever consider flooding them. That's just nowhere near accurate."
The superintendent says the primary reason he has not responded to the tribe is that they have refused to supply him with a detailed land-use plan for the area they occupy. "We've told them that we need to assess the cumulative impact of construction development on that site, and in order to do that we need to understand their long-term plans," explains Ring, who took over the park in April 1992, scant months before Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida.
For a tribe that numbers fewer than 400, the Miccosukee have been eager to build out. Indeed, the current push for housing comes on the heels of an expansion that increased the number of homes in the village from 50 to 103; a few of these new units have yet to be finished. Despite this flurry of activity, the tribe's land-resource manager, Steve Terry, says the Miccosukee are still living in overcrowded conditions: "We've got twenty names on the waiting list and others who are living with relatives." According to Terry, the 65 proposed new residences would not be built immediately. "We want to make sure we can provide homes down the line, when our population grows," he explains.
But Ring says the current request is complicated by the scheduled $110 million restoration of the Shark River Slough, a huge swath of wetland that constitutes the park's primary waterway and is a key component in the federal effort to clean up the Everglades. The special permit area happens to be located smack in the middle of the slough.
Tribe attorney Cortinas maintains that the new construction would take place on land that has already been developed, and thus would have virtually no effect on the park's restoration plans.
"Taking a cursory look at it, I'd say that since the proposed homes are all adjacent to the [Tamiami] Trail, and since already water flows under that road and into the park, the homes would not have a tremendous impact on water flow," says Richard Bonner, deputy district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency charged with regulating water flow throughout the state. "Then again, anytime you put more people into an ecosystem, you've got all kinds of effects, from septic tanks on up. The superintendent's concern is that the park's limited natural resources are put first."
In Bonner's estimation, both Ring and Miccosukee tribal chairman Billy Cypress are "honorable men who are doing what they feel is the right thing." Still, he says he is surprised by the nasty tenor of the allegations being lodged by the Indians against Ring. He says the claim that Ring intentionally tried to flood the Indians, for instance, is nonsense. "I think we all worked together to try to deal with that problem," he notes.
Many attribute the more combative tone to Dexter Lehtinen, the aggressive former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who heads the Miccosukee tribe's legal team. Since being retained by the Indians in 1992, Lehtinen has filed a battery of suits against federal agencies, claiming that the government's plans to clean up the Everglades are so watered down that they place the entire region in peril.
"Things really didn't turn nasty until Dexter got into this thing," says one Department of the Interior staffer, who requested anonymity. "As the people of South Florida know, his style is confrontational. Unfortunately he's caught in a classic Catch-22. On the one hand, he wants to save the Everglades from development. On the other, he's pushing for his clients to get permission to build a whole bunch of houses."
But environmentalists like Joette Lorian, vice president of Friends of the Everglades, have hailed Lehtinen as a hero who is a waging a fight that the government has already ceded to special interests such as sugar manufacturers. "The Miccosukee have realized that the only way to save their homeland, the Everglades, is to fight this thing in court. And they've hired good lawyers to help them do so. Why shouldn't they?" she says. Lorian says that while she would otherwise oppose any development in the Everglades, she is reluctant to fault the Miccosukee for seeking to build new homes. "These are people who were chased into the Everglades," she stresses. "I don't think it's fair to fault them for seeking the comfort we take for granted."
Though members of his legal firm spoke at length with New Times, Lehtinen himself did not return phone calls.
"Dexter is not the issue," says Sonia O'Donnell, another colleague. "The Everglades are.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter