Florida Everglades getting its second wind. After two years, state program is slowly reversing years of decline

Not long ago, Florida's Everglades was a symbol of the plight of America's disappearing wetlands. It was threatened by development, pesticide contamination from farms, and, above all, a water-management policy that alternately dried and drenched Everglades National Park.

There are still problems here, but things are looking up in the Everglades.

A six-part state program to restore the Everglades saw its second anniversary recently. The governor's office issued a ``report card'' to mark the event. It gave the program high marks so far, and many environmentalists agree with that assessment. Some say the recent history of the swamp may become one of the great environmental success stories of the decade.

``It is, quite frankly, the most ambitious [environmental] project ever launched by a state,'' says Ron Tipton, Southeast regional director for the Wilderness Society, an environmental group.

The project's stated goal is to make the Everglades look and function by the year 2000 more like it did in 1900. The effort could cost the state well over $100 million. Among the chores tackled so far:

Restoration of the Kissimmee River. The river is a main source for Lake Okeechobee, which, in turn, is a main source of water for the Everglades.

Once, the Kissimmee gently meandered down a 98-mile course from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee. At the state's request, the US Army Corps of Engineers forced the river into man-made channels, straightening many of its picturesque twists and turns, making it into a 48-mile drainage canal. The result: Almost 200,000 acres of surrounding wetland was drained, significantly lowering groundwater levels in the river basin.

The state wants to restore two-thirds of the river-cum-canal to its original state. It recently finished building three miniature dams across the canal and water has begun to flow into the old river oxbows along a 15-mile segment. The state also bought 1,300 acres of surrounding marsh and plans to study, under a congressionally approved plan, what needs to be done next. Eventually, Florida could spend as much as $50 million to buy an additional 30,000 acres around the Kissimmee. The final project will r equire congressional approval.

Saving the Florida panther. According to several estimates, there are about 30 of these cougar-like animals left in the state. Currently, their biggest killers are cars and trucks traveling down State Road 29, better known as Alligator Alley. The road cuts through their territory in the Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress Swamp. Four panthers are known to have been killed on Alligator Alley since December 1983.

Now, the road is scheduled to be converted into Interstate 75. After lengthy negotiations with the US Department of Transportation, state officials announced that a new elevated Alligator Alley will include 23 underpasses and 13 extended bridges. The openings are supposed to allow panthers safe passage under the highway and facilitate the flow of water in the surrounding wetlands.

Additionally, the Florida Legislature this year approved state efforts to add 128,000 acres to the Big Cypress Swamp. The move is intended to protect the panther's habitat.

Restore Everglades National Park. A booming population in Dade and Broward counties has stretched Florida's water supply capacity. As a result, the Everglades system has paid dearly. Changes in the natural waterflow into the area have reduced fish and wildlife populations by as much as 80 percent in some cases.

To combat the trend, officials of the state and the South Florida Water Management District have hammered out a seven-point water-management plan for the park. It includes filling in canals, removing levees, monitoring water quality, and establishing a new water-delivery schedule for the park.

Park officials say a key element of the Everglades's revival is to restore a natural water flow through the East Everglades, a 242-square mile no-man's land wedged between the urban sprawl of Miami and the park itself. The state has spent more than $20 million to buy 55,000 acres in the area. Florida Gov. Bob Graham has also asked the US Department of Interior to help the state acquire land around the park in the East Everglades, Fakahatchee Strand, and Big Cypress areas as protective buffers.

A two-year water-delivery experiment began recently by opening a flood gate just north of the East Everglades. The move sparked numerous court cases and vigorous protests from residential and agricultural interests. They are concerned that the experiment will result in local flooding and plummeting property values. State officials insist they will monitor the experiments closely. They already have authorized $10 million to provid flood protection to residential areas in the East Everglades affected by c hanges in water delivery to the park.

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