Oceans infested by worms of misdirection

The heart of the preliminary recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, appointed by President Bush, is that oceans should be adaptively managed to protect ecosystems of great commercial, recreational and wilderness value.

The language mirrors the original intent of Everglades restoration. Congress needs to understand what has happened in the few short years since it authorized measures to restore the Everglades or risk an outcome to our oceans that our nation cannot afford.

That drift away from the intent of Congress is largely due to the failure by federal and state agencies to compel local planning and zoning decisions—at the level of cities and counties—to integrate with ecosystem restoration.

It is a familiar story that has not changed in 100 years. The Florida Legislature—despite committing to and investing in Everglades restoration—has repeatedly made it easier for big agriculture to continue to pollute and for upstream land development to ignore the costs and consequences to marine resources.

From Collier County in the west, to Palm Beach in the east, development and land speculation are booming. Local county commissions and councils are racing to process zoning requests and building permits that push sprawl into environmentally sensitive lands.

The U.S. commission emphasizes educating the public, a laudable goal. But with Everglades restoration, government agencies charged with education have distorted what information the public receives. As a consequence, most Floridians believe the Everglades ecosystem is being saved.

Consider the example of the Florida Keys. Three years ago—after a decade of prodding by environmentalists, including a court battle—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its Florida Keys carrying-capacity analysis. Citizens had hoped for an honest assessment from the Corps on the impacts of population growth on fragile natural resources—including our only living coral reef. But when the report was issued, the Corps somehow neglected to include an analysis of the single most important factor: direct impacts of land use and population growth on marine resources.

The embarrassment was dryly noted by the National Academy of Sciences—the nonpartisan voice of science in the United States. For its frank assessments, the U.S. Army Corps sharply curtailed the parameters of the group’s involvement in monitoring—and providing Congress—with an independent assessment of Everglades restoration.

Today, only a mile from the Miami-Dade border with the Keys—virtually on the edge of Biscayne National Park—rock-mining interests are hoping for governmental support to convert 1,400 acres into a small city of 18,000. If not for an earlier permit, which laid the groundwork for the current plans, coastal wetlands long identified as environmentally sensitive would have been undevelopable.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy articulates the need for “adaptive management.” But these examples show how the system is as highly adapted to evade responsibility for unintended consequences as to plan for intended ones, or, like octopi fleeing danger, emit clouds of black ink to obscure everything including the tracks of their flight.

The health of the Everglades ecosystem is based on water quality and quantity at the right time of year—critical to Florida’s downstream estuaries, rivers and bays. The ocean and its fisheries, in turn, depend on health of the upstream food chain. Yet, in spite of the massive investment in the Everglades, the only causality local elected officials defer to, is the conversion of farmland at the edges of the Everglades into sprawl.

What is lacking is accountability. Congress could assure accountability were it to condition the release of all federal funds to the states on specific compliance by local governments to the imperatives for protecting ecosystems.

When Jesus multiplied the fish to feed the poor and hungry, he channeled the mystery of creation through his hands to people, for whom the ocean’s bounty had always been just beyond reach. Mankind has powerfully turned the tables, erasing the mystery that helped us to believe and to act as honored guests of creation.

As to the likelihood that wealth can insulate us against the loss of the biodiversity, there is more illumination on a dark, moonless night than in the whole of our politics. It is never too late for leadership to inspire the American people, but with the oceans, the time is getting there.

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