Julio Concepcion has re-created his own little slice of Cuba here in the most contentious patch of Florida, a rustic neighborhood at the edge of the Everglades known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area. Concepcion has a tropical orchard with mangos, mammees, plantains and papayas the size of footballs. He has an apiary with about 1.5 million bees. And just as he did before fleeing from Fidel Castro in 1962, he has a beef with his government.
Federal officials want to buy 77 homes at the western tip of Miami's sprawl in order to reflood the eastern end of the Everglades. The Senate approved language in its budget bill Thursday authorizing the buyouts; Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and President Bush's aides recently endorsed the measure. But Concepcion and some of his neighbors are refusing to sell, and it is not clear whether the buyout plan will survive negotiations with the House of Representatives.
All in all, it's a fairly routine property rights dispute -- except that it has stalled a plan to revive Everglades National Park for the past 14 years. And now it's bogging down the related $8 billion effort to restore the entire Everglades, the largest environmental project ever.
"We're not leaving. No way," said Concepcion. "Castro doesn't run this country. They can't make us go."
Everyone involved in the 8.5 Square Mile Area battle agrees that it's a waste of time and energy, that the otherwise uncontroversial park restoration plan known as "Mod Waters" ought to move forward as soon as possible, that the overall Everglades restoration effort will be doomed if it can't even overcome this local spat. That $8 billion Everglades restoration -- an array of 68 projects enacted by Congress in 2000 -- is already a model for rescue efforts in the San Francisco Bay Delta, Louisiana's coastal wetlands and the Pantanal region of Brazil.
But no one can agree whether the 8.5 Square Mile Area's unwilling sellers -- the government counts only 10, although local activists say there are dozens -- should be allowed to stay and receive flood protection. In May, a federal judge ruled that Congress never authorized the buyouts, and ordered the Army Corps of Engineers back to the drawing board on Mod Waters. Congress had already decreed that until Mod Waters was completed, the government could not move forward on key elements of the overall Everglades restoration plan.
So the impasse has dragged on, shrouded by political intrigue, bureaucratic paralysis and finger pointing. Hulking concrete floodgates have been built but never opened. The price tag for Mod Waters has soared from $89 million to $191 million. And federal agencies have been forced to improvise an expensive array of interim plans to prevent the last few endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrows from drowning. One Army Corps official wrote in an internal e-mail last February: "We risk wasting megabucks of government money."
On one side, environmentalists and government officials say a compromise plan to buy out one-third of the 8.5-Square-Mile Area is the only way to rehydrate the park and jump-start Everglades restoration. On the other side, property rights activists argue that the buyouts are unnecessary, and that the rights of people should take precedence over the rights of birds. The Miccosukee Indians support the residents, even though Mod Waters would relieve flooding on tribal lands; they call the buyouts a throwback to the 19th-century displacement of Indians.
"We're stuck," said Robert Johnson, Everglades National Park's top scientist.
"It's a mess," said Terry Rice, a former Army Corps colonel who now works for the Miccosukees.
Everglades National Park has been a mess for decades, ravaged by canals, levees and pumps that have flooded its western side, parched its eastern side and decimated its wildlife. Mod Waters -- its formal name is the Modified Water Deliveries Project -- was designed to restore more natural flows to the park, shifting water from west to east through weirs and floodgates. But the original legislation also pledged that if Mod Waters worsened flooding in the 8.5 Square Mile Area, the neighborhood would receive flood protection. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and the late Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) ushered the bipartisan bill through Congress in 1989.
In 1992, the Corps drafted its technical plan, which included a levee and a canal around the entire neighborhood. But Everglades National Park scientists concluded those structures would dry out nearly 30,000 acres of park wetlands. Conservationists proposed a buyout of the entire neighborhood instead, and at one point Florida officials agreed. "We will all be pushing up daisies before you fully get it resolved," then-House Resources Committee Chairman James V. Hansen (R-Utah) once grumbled at a hearing. The debate raged until 2000, when the Corps, the park and the state agreed on the compromise, which would require buyouts of only 77 of the neighborhood's 602 residential properties.
Twenty-two families have accepted buyouts. But others are determined to protect their sparsely developed community as an alternative to Miami's high-density subdivisions, a getaway where they can grow avocados or raise horses or enjoy retirement in peace. Even families that were not targeted for buyouts are fighting the plan, suspecting a government conspiracy to clear out their community in phases. They accuse federal lawyers of harassment and ruminate about secret plans to sell their land to rock-mining firms.
"They say they want to save the planet, but first they want to destroy us," said Alice Pena, who leads the local opposition to the compromise even though it would protect her home. "This is America. We should prove to the world that people can live with nature."
Park scientists say the lowest-lying portions of the 8.5 Square Mile Area were once shallow wetlands that flooded every year, and must be reflooded for the Everglades flows to be restored. The residents insist that they do not live in Everglades wetlands, that their homes flood only because of government actions, that park officials are simply desperate for buffer land. "This isn't the Everglades," Concepcion said. "Squash doesn't grow in the Everglades."
The residents want the Corps to go ahead with the original 1992 plan, and say their victory in court last year should force the Corps to do just that. One sympathetic Corps hydrologist, furious at park scientists, declared in an internal e-mail that "it's going to take strong leadership and possibly a chopped-off hand or firing squad to get out of this."
Last fall, a House subcommittee passed a measure responding to the judge's ruling by specifically authorizing the compromise plan, but Hansen and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) blocked it on property rights grounds. Graham then tried to push the language in the Senate, and administration officials in the Corps and the Interior Department drafted a letter supporting his efforts. But the letter was suppressed by the White House; Gov. Bush, who was running for reelection, remained silent at the time.
On Thursday, Graham and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) got the compromise measure through the Senate again. Environmentalists, who once denounced the compromise as a cave-in to property rights radicals, now say it is absolutely vital. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton announced earlier this month that President Bush's administration supports the compromise, and Gov. Bush wrote in an e-mail to a disappointed Rice that "the consensus is the [compromise] is the route to go." Hansen has retired from Congress, but his successor, Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), has voiced property rights concerns about the measure as well.
"We all want to get this thing moving," said Richard Bonner, a top Corps official in Florida. "It's been sitting around way too long."
As long as Mod Waters stalls, the larger Everglades restoration, which is far more complex and controversial than Mod Waters, and will affect far more people, will sputter as well. For now, officials are still planning projects and buying land, but much of the restoration work is on hold. Rice quoted the late environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who famously warned that: "The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet."
"We're flunking right now," Rice said.