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In Fla., Cautious Hope For Everglades Protection

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At the annual dinner of the Everglades Foundation recently, there was a surprise guest: Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The governor made a brief appearance before the group with some reassuring words.

"We are absolutely focused on making sure the right thing happens for the Everglades," he said.

It's a new focus for the Republican, a businessman who's a relative newcomer both to Florida and to politics. After taking office earlier this year, his statements and actions suggested he saw environmental protection not so much as a goal, but as a problem.

With the legislature, he dismantled a powerful state agency, the Department of Community Affairs, which helped control development and protected natural areas, including the Everglades. He also eliminated funding for Florida Forever, a program that allowed the state to buy and preserve land in critical areas.

Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club says Scott's record on Everglades restoration is clear.

"Up until now, it would have to be negative," he says.

The move that has had the most direct impact involves the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency charged with restoring the Everglades. Scott approved a plan that forced the District to slash its budget and draw down its reserves.

"As a result, there were massive layoffs," Ullman says. "Especially hard hit were Everglades science."

More than 250 employees, including many top scientists, were let go. Also gone is much of the money set aside for land acquisition, including more than 100,000 acres of land now owned by U.S. Sugar, available to the state under a deal brokered by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

New Initiatives

On his cattle ranch north of Lake Okeechobee, Woody Larson has a load of visitors on board a swamp buggy. It's a high-rise, all-terrain vehicle useful in running cattle across marshy areas on his ranch.

Larson has just signed an agreement with the state of Florida that will pay him tens of thousands of dollars each year to turn some of his ranch into wetlands. Instead of using canals to drain nutrient-rich water that eventually ends up in the Everglades, he's keeping it here.

The head of the South Florida Water Management District, Melissa Meeker, says projects like this are a cost-effective way to improve water quality in the Everglades.

"When you hear the governor and the administration talk about public-private partnerships, this is exactly the type of thing we're talking about," she says. "We're looking for innovative ways that we can work to reduce the upfront capital investment of the state and taxpayer dollars."

Meeker says programs like this aren't a substitute for land acquisition. To restore the Everglades, she says Florida will have to buy and preserve more land.

When Meeker talked about it with Scott recently, she says he agreed.

"We started to talk about ideas and he said, 'Stop. If we agree on a plan, we'll get it funded.' So, he's committed to getting it funded, so I don't feel that will be a huge hurdle for us," she says.

Former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, says the Everglades can only be fixed by the state and federal government working in partnership. Graham worries that marriage right now is on the rocks.

"One of the leadership responsibilities of the governor will be to restore that level of confidence that the federal government has a reliable partner that is capable of delivering on its half of the partnership for Everglades salvation," he says.

Graham and other Everglades advocates say they're encouraged by what Scott and others in his administration are saying. Now, though, they're impatient for action.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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