* Florida's Everglades is "the ultimate test case" for a shift in national policy aimed at environmental protection by managing ecosystems as a whole, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says.

Secretary Babbitt used his first speech to an environmental group since his appointment to pledge strong support for the ambitious Everglades preservation effort. He said Feb. 22 that he wanted a Washington-level Everglades task force to unite federal efforts.

"I think we have to recognize that if we're going to solve the problems of the Everglades, we must treat the symptoms of the entire ecosystem," said the former Arizona governor, speaking to the eighth annual Everglades Coalition conference.

"As I begin around the United States talking about this process of ecosystem-based biology ... we're all going to be coming back to the Everglades as the test case, for all federal agencies, for all park systems, for all states, for the entire country," he said.

By considering the links of individual species and systems in long-term, "preventive" policies, Babbitt said, the government can head off last-minute conflicts between protection of endangered species and economic interests such as one over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

Although the 1.4 million-acre Everglades National Park was established in 1947, biologists and officials have only in recent years realized that it is part of a much larger, complex ecosystem that affects the supply and quality of water for south Florida's population.

Development, flood control projects, and agriculture around the park have disrupted natural flows of water through "the river of grass," damaged habitat, and led to threat or endangerment of 16 animal species in the system.

Babbitt met privately with Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), who said Babbitt assured him of active help for the state's ambitious environmental efforts. And he promised federal leadership in coordinating the agencies - at least six and as many as 13 - involved in the Everglades region.

Babbitt also backed funding for an Army Corps of Engineers study of Everglades system waterways and for augmenting Florida's land-buying plan that totals nearly $400 million a year.

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