Feds to Pick Up Pace on Everglades Restoration

Top federal officials said Saturday they're still committed to restoring the Everglades and ready to move forward on several key projects.

"We are very, very proud to help implement this plan that has restoration as its primary purpose," said Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers (search). "We are committed to restoring habitat."

Strock spoke at the 20th annual Everglades Coalition (search) conference, where many environmentalists were concerned the federal government was backing down from its half of the $8.4 billion Everglades restoration.

The state has committed nearly $3 billion for the restoration so far, while the federal government has committed just under $1 billion, said Eric Draper, director of conservation for Audobon of Florida (search).

Environmentalists also wanted Congressional approval for two restoration projects.

One project would restore wetlands around the Indian River Lagoon (search), slowing the water flow into Lake Okeechobee (search), which feeds the Everglades. Another would tear out roads, fill in canals and restore estuaries in the Southern Golden Gates Estate (search), where land had once been sold to investors as a real estate development.

But a year passed without federal funding.

"Be calm," said Bill Leary, an adviser to President Bush on environmental issues. "We are moving out as partners just as we expected to do."

He said the state was expected to spend more money first, because the state would buy the necessary land and the federal government would pay for the pumps, reservoirs and other structures on that land.

"I came here tonight to tell you that the administration is moving beyond the process stage and into implementation," said Leary, associate director of natural resources for the Council on Environmental Quality (search), on Friday.

Leary and Strock both said the federal government would follow the lead of the state, which has accelerated eight projects and put the restoration plan about 15 years ahead of schedule.

The Corps was reviewing the remaining projects to determine which ones the federal government could do more quickly.

"We need to be as agile as we can be to take advantage of this opportunity," Leary said.

Strock said he signed a chief's report approving the Indian River Lagoon plan this fall. The plan for Golden Gates Estate was stalled when concerns were raised at public meetings, but Strock said he expected a resolution by next month.

"We think we're going to have that one solved," Strock said.

That means both projects will soon be ready for congressional consideration.

Leary said it was also time to put a bridge over part of Tamiami Trail (search), which would allow water to flow south where the road now blocks it. The length of the bridge has been disputed — with suggestions ranging from 11 miles to 3,000 feet — but Leary said it was time to find a resolution.