Fight over Everglades refuge pits Fla. against feds


LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. (AP) – South Florida water officials are threatening to cancel a lease with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over management of a 144,000-acre wildlife refuge in the Everglades.

The Miami Herald reports that the South Florida Water Management District owns the land occupied by the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, but the federal agency operates the refuge.

State water officials claim the federal agency has done a lousy job of maintaining the refuge, especially when it comes to controlling a fern that has spread throughout the Everglades.

But supporters of the refuge say the threat is more about politics than anything.

They say state water officials just want to end federal meddling in the refuge, and that would give them more control over setting water quality standards.

There is a federal court order to limit the amount of phosphorus from fertilizers flowing into Everglades National Park. If the land is no longer a refuge, water district officials could argue that the limit no longer applies and also change that limit in state standards too, said Martha Musgrove, regional director for Florida Wildlife Federation, a conservation group.

“They want to set their own water quality standards and not have a federal court looking over their shoulder,” Musgrove said.

Water district officials have vowed to protect plants and wildlife in the refuge, as well as scientific research and public use, but federal wildlife officials say the land will be managed without wildlife as its focus if it’s not a refuge.

“A small group of men who are out of step with everyone in this room have made a decision to cancel the lease,” Nathaniel Reed, a former assistant Secretary of the Inerior told a meeting of refuge supporters this month. “They are totally out of step with all of us.”

Water district officials said they can no longer tolerate how the refuge is being managed, especially when it comes to controlling the Old World climbing fern, which has infested huge swaths of the Everglades. District executive director Pete Antonacci said district officials, out of frustration, invited Department of Interior officials to see the damage caused by the fern three years ago.

“The Department of Interior came down and saw the damage and did nothing,” Antonacci said.

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