While mining companies are putting pressure on the US Department of the Interior to allow phosphate strip mining in one of Florida's most beautiful recreation areas, opponents of the efforts are worried that the Reagan administration will put business before environment.
The issue has not only mobilized environmentalists, but also calls into question the state's ability to control land within its border.
In a letter to the federal Environmental Protection agency, Garry Carruthers, assistant secretary of land and water resources of the Interior Department, asked EPA Adminstrator Anne M. Gorsuch if her agency still "harbored reservations" about mining in the national forest.
"I would urge you to formally withdraw any previous expressions of concern," Mr. Carruthers wrote. "If your agency maintains [that] an adequacy problem continues to exist, I would appreciate receiving an outline of the defects so we can take quick measures to correct them.
"Industry is pressuring me on this issue; hence, I would be most grateful for a quick response."
A high official in the EPA, who asked not to be named, said an official reply had not yet been sent to the Interior Department, but as far as he knew, the agency had not changed its stand in opposition to the mining.
He said the issue is "heating up," however, and both the Interior Department and the EPA are studying the limits of granting mining permits.
Environmentalists in the state feel that the letter indicates the Interior Department will push for more mining.
If this is needed the case, says Charles Lee, a researcher with the Florida Audubon Society, then the state is going to have to act as protector. "I think the state government, right on up to the governor, is willing to take whatever action necessary to stop the mining."
Victoria Tschinkel, Florida's secretary of environmental regulation, agreed that the state would oppose mining in the national forest, but she conceded that it had little power to stop it.
"We remain totally opposed to it," she said. "We understand that a national forest is supposed to be multipurpose. but there are some things that are just not compatible. There's enough phosphate under private lands, and unless there's a national emergency, we can't justify turning a national forest into a phosphate pit."
The Osceola National Forest was set aside by the US government in the early 1930s as a water conservation area and a lumber resource. Seventeen years ago mining companies discovered phosphate deposits in it.
The companies staked their claim to the land under the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act, which allowed them to prospect for minerals on federal land. If they made a discovery, they had the right to apply for a mining lease.
Four companies -- Kerr-McGee Corporatin of Oklahoma City, Monsanto Corporation, of St. Louis, Pittsburgh & Midway Coal Mining Company of Denver, and George Brooks of Lakeland, Fla. -- have made phosphate discoveries and have been trying to get leases.
At stake is 55,000 acres, or about a third of the north Florida park that environmentalists describe as "one of the more pristine examples of upland and swamp habitats in the state." Several rare and endangered species are in the forest, they say, and it is an important recreational area, especially for Jacksonville residents.
The companies insist that they have a legal right to mine in the forest and that they can restore the land to its original state.
Mining permits should not be expected anytime soon, indicated Vincent Hecker, the Interior Departments's chief of mineral resources in Washington. He said the companies would have to clear several hurdles before a decision was made.
First, he said, the US Forest Service must draw up environmental guidelines for the mining. Then the companies must prove to the US Geological Survey that the amount of phosphate on the land is sufficient to economically justify mining within those guidelines.
At the same time, EPA has to determine if there would be any detrimental effects on the environment. If it does, Mr. Hecker said, the companies will have to find ways to allay those concerns.
Furthermore, mining phosphate is not high on the Reagan administration's energy list. "We're showing a degree of diligence, but we have higher priority work in energy," Hecker said.
The companies are apparently pleased with the response they are getting in Washington.
"At least we are getting an objective look-see that we wouldn't get under any other regime," one company executive said. "In the past, we've just had one interminable study after another, and there's been no real evaluation of our findings. Now the Interior Department is doing that evaluation."
At the same time, Congress is working on legislation that would prohibit mining in the Osceola National Forest.
US Rep. Don Fuqua (D), in whose district the national forest lies, got a bill passed in the House last year that would prohibit mining in the forest and transfer the companies' mineral rights there to coal mining regions in the West. But the bill died in the Senate.
US Sen. Lawton Chiles (D), another Floridian, has introduced legislation on his side of Capitol Hill that would do largely what Mr. Fuqua was seeking. But instead of transferring mineral rights, Chile's bill would offer the companies monetary companies.
Chiles is running for reelection next year, and the phosphate industry, which is based in his home Polk County, is a major influence in the state. The Florida Phosphate Council is not taking a position on the Osceola mining dispute , council director Homer Hooks said, because none of its members are involved. Three major companies seeking the leases are all from out of state, and George Brooks, from Florida, is not a council member.
The companies are not as interested in the Chiles bill as they were in Fuqua's. George Atwood, manager of mineral activities for Monsanto, said the monetary compensation would be "meaningless" to the company. While Monsanto had supported Fuqua's bill, it has not taken a position on Chile's, he said.