Interior Department streamlines Everglades restoration

Published January 1, 2002

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced on November 6 that she is closing the Office of Everglades Restoration in West Palm Beach, Florida, in order to streamline the federal bureaucracy and steer more money directly to Everglades restoration.

Department of Interior officials estimate the move will save $1.3 million. Of the savings, $300,000 will be spent to resuscitate endangered deer populations in the Florida Keys, and $1 million will be directed to the eradication of nonnative melaluca trees and climbing ferns in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite the direct benefits to the endangered deer and native plant populations, allies of the former Clinton administration criticized Norton’s decision. The Office of Everglades Restoration was established in Clinton’s final month in office and rewarded Michael Davis, a controversial figure who helped create the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration plan, by making him director of the office. By streamlining the bureaucracy at the expense of Clinton’s last-minute creation, Davis will lose his directorship.

Move attracts mixed reviews

“I am disappointed in Secretary Norton’s decision,” stated Davis. “I believe that the office is unequivocally justified and consistent with the President’s desire to get senior managers out of Washington and into the communities affected by agency actions. The establishment of the office reflected a vision and an understanding of the critical and fragile nature of the next few years.”

Shannon Estenoz of the World Wildlife Fund expressed concern that closing the new office will shift power away from the Interior Department, whose Everglades interest is entirely environmental, to Florida state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers, which consider environmental interests as just one of several factors in their activities.

“These actions demonstrate our continuing strong commitment to Everglades restoration,” countered Joseph Doddridge, the acting Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “By reducing bureaucratic overhead, we will focus our efforts and funding on the ground.”

“The career people view this very favorably,” added Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That office created a tremendous amount of confusion. It really usurped power from the agencies in the field.” “This is just going to improve the communications flow,” agreed Maureen Finnerty, superintendent of Everglades National Park.

A “serious environmental threat”

The decision to protect native plant species with the savings achieved by closing the Everglades office responds to a call by environmentalists to thwart the spread of nonnative plant and animal life along America’s coastlands.

A July report by the General Accounting Office concluded that nonnative species are causing billions of dollars in damage to crops, ranges, and waterways, representing “one of the most serious environmental threats of the 21st century.”

The Pew Oceans Commission has called for a federal “strike force” and $50 million to be directed at eradicating nonnative invaders.

“The problem is accelerating,” stated Lori Williams, executive director of a federal interagency task force charged with protecting native species.

Bush administration officials hope the transfer of funds from the federal bureaucracy to the Everglades themselves will serve as an important first step in the fight against invasive plant species.