Grassroots activists to rally in Florida

Published October 1, 2002

The worst fears of land-acquiring bureaucracies and big-government activist groups have become reality: Last year’s Klamath Falls protests were merely the genesis, not the culmination, of a renewed property rights movement.

The evidence is abundant, as citizens from across America are planning the largest property rights rally in recent memory, beginning October 17 in Naples, Florida.

Artificial flooding spurs Rebellion

Naples, located on the west coast of Florida just north of the Everglades, has become the epicenter of a citizen protest movement that has come to be known as the Sawgrass Rebellion. The Rebellion took root as the Army Corps of Engineers began raising the water table in the nearby Everglades. Allegedly motivated by an effort to save the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the Corps has been condemning and confiscating nearby homes, and flooding out longtime residents beyond the reach of their confiscation powers.

“They don’t ever give up,” said local homeowner Madeleine Fortin. “They don’t ever stop flooding us and trying to take our property.”

The Corps has taken steps toward condemning 100 homes in and around the Everglades, claiming the government agency needs the land as a “buffer zone” for its projects. For land it can’t acquire by condemnation, artificial flooding is serving the Corps’ purpose. Locals claim ulterior motives are to blame.

The flooding occurs when the Corps artificially holds back water during nesting season in areas inhabited by the sparrow. Holding back water in some areas results in flooding in other areas. Coincidentally—or not—homes the Corps would like to acquire are frequent flooding victims.

Flooding unnecessary

The problem, according to scientists and local citizens, is that such artificial water management is not needed to protect the sparrows.

William Post, curator of ornithology at the Charleston Museum and a leading sparrow expert, points out the Cape Sable seaside sparrow has an extensive habitat range, with some living as much as 400 miles from the Everglades.

“I don’t think it was based on objective science myself, having worked on this species for 30 years,” said Post. “They move around a lot in response to unpredictable events like hurricanes and floods. There’s no point in flooding tens of thousands of acres of ground just to save a few birds on the west side. The birds would move out if they got flooded. They weren’t going to stay put.”

Moreover, condemning and flooding land to protect birds is explicitly forbidden under federal law, says Virginia Albrecht, a lawyer who is representing area homeowners.

When Congress approved the Everglades restoration program in 1989, it determined the Corps of Engineers should build a levy to protect communities, rather than raise the water table to flood them out.

“The Corps is doing the opposite. Instead of protecting them, they are flooding them,” asserted Albrecht. “And there is absolutely no evidence there is any need to condemn this land and destroy these people’s homes.”

Residents suspect a general desire on the part of environmental activist groups to acquire and retire area lands from human use, rather than a sincere desire to protect the seaside sparrow, underlies Corps policy in the Everglades.

“They pick out a species, make up what its habitat needs to be, and go forward,” observed G.B. Oliver, president of the Paragon Foundation, a New Mexico-based grassroots organization dedicated to private property rights. “If they are right, get on with it. But we don’t think the science will hold up.”

Klamath reincarnated

The Paragon Foundation is doing more than simply lend moral support to the Floridians’ cause. The Foundation is a key organizer in the October 17-18 Sawgrass Rebellion protests planned for Naples, and an October 19 protest planned for Homestead.

Caravans from as far away as Klamath Falls, Oregon and Darby, Ohio will make the cross-country trek to help out fellow citizens in need. Capturing and expanding upon the spirit of the Klamath Falls demonstrations last summer, protest organizers expect as many as 30,000 people to participate in the Florida events. Indeed, the protests have gained so much momentum that Collier County has rescinded its offer to make the county fairgrounds available for the protests. The county fairgrounds simply won’t hold that many people.

“It doesn’t really surprise me,” said the Paragon Foundation’s Jay Walley. “I fully expect 20,000 to 30,000 people to attend this event. I think it may be the largest property rights rally ever staged in the United States.”

A shortage of adequate protest sites is not the only unexpected problem facing Sawgrass Rebellion organizers. Another is explaining their absence from home to the folks back West. In a year of failed fire management policies and ongoing government land acquisitions, people back home miss the grassroots clout of Oliver, Walley, and other property rights advocates.

“I am in Florida and I owe you folks an explanation,” Walley writes to his fellow Westerners.

“Paragon is ‘ridin’ for the brand’ and lending a hand in Florida, along with many other groups,” Walley explains. “This formal linking of like-minded groups is producing a powerful force that can, and will, be brought to bear on similar problems across America. It is an education in working together to produce winning strategies that can be blueprinted for future use.”

Adds Walley, “Paragon believes the battle—and I mean Battle with a capital “B”—to help property owners and public land users in Southern Florida is one that affects every property owner in America. Believe me, it ain’t a vacation on the beach!”

“As best I can determine, every land-grabbing scheme devised by the green feds left over from the Clinton regime, and their environmentalist cronies, has been brought to bear on the people in rural South Florida. The Paragon Foundation believes it to be the model for future land grabs nationwide,” warned Walley.

More likely, judging by the growing momentum of the Sawgrass Rebellion, this will instead be the model for citizen resistance nationwide.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.