June 18, 1997

Gore announces land buy for Everglades

By JOHN PACENTI
Associated Press Writer

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK -- Land once destined to become the world's largest subdivision instead will play a critical role in restoring the Everglades.

Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday braved hungry mosquitos and 90-degree heat to announce a $50 million purchase of 31,000 acres of private land in southwest Florida that includes the failed development called South Golden Gate Estates.

He later attended a Democratic National Committee fundraiser hosted by Dade County mayor Alex Penelas.

"Today, we recognize that the Everglades stretch to the Gulf Coast," Gore said. "This area we are going to be able to acquire ... has the highest level of diversity of life in the entire state of Florida."

The land -- which will also include the Fakahatchee Strand and Belle Meade areas -- is home to the endangered Florida panther, black bear and orchids found no where else in the world. It includes the largest Florida Royal Palm forest.

"Thirty years ago when we didn't know as much about the environment, South Golden Gate Estates was intended to be part of the largest subdivision in the world," Gore said. "They brought the people from the North in the wintertime to show them the plots -- in the dry season."

The 173-square-mile subdivision, planned in the 1950s about 10 miles east of Naples, never came to fruition. Still, developers carved up the area with roads and canals that diverted much-needed water from the western edges of Everglades National Park.

It also became the best example of the land scams that became infamous in Florida: selling swampland to unsuspecting northerners craving sun. In 1967, developer Gulf American Land Corp. pleaded guilty to selling fraudulent plots at Golden Gate.

That it would help restore the Everglades, polluted for decades by agriculture, business and
development, was fitting, some conservationists attending Gore's announcement said.

"It's a symbolic remedy for some horrendous zoning and development decisions made in Florida's past without realizing the consequences," said Ed Davidson, chairman for the Florida Audubon Society. "Well, everybody knows now and this is historically significant for that reason alone."

The land will be purchased with $25 million from the federal government and equal matching funds from the state. The federal portion comes from $200 million that Congress allocated for Everglades restoration. So far $40 million has been spent to buy farmland in southeast Florida.

"I said we were going to go all out to put this restoration plan together," Gore said. "President Clinton and I insisted with the Congressional leadership that whatever else was done in this budget agreement the Everglades restoration had to be apart of it."

The new land purchases will be turned into Picayune State Forest in Collier County and link Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve and Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife refuges.

It provides about half of the water that flows into Everglades National Park. A good part of Everglades restoration focuses on partially restoring the natural flow of the so-called River of Grass, which provides drinking water to all of South Florida.

"This is the first big domino to fall," Davidson said. "It is a major gap that we can plug. ... It sends a message that we are serious. We are going to spend big money and buy big chunks of land."

With the buy-back of the failed development, Gore said it shows that environment and economy go hand-in-hand. He says the Everglades is part of South Florida's infrastructure, providing drinking water and bringing in billions of dollars in tourism.

"The environment is the economy and the economy is the environment," Gore said. "This notion that they are separated and you can pursue one at the expense of another is absolute nonsense."

Gore finished his brief visit to South Florida with a $5,000-a-plate luncheon for the Democratic National Committee that was expected to net $250,000. The DNC is $16 million in debt from the election last year.

Gore drew applause when he said the Clinton administration is committed to opposing Cuban President Fidel Castro. He also criticized Republicans' support for cutting benefits to legal immigrants.

"Why they would come after legal immigrants in that way is really a mystery to me," the vice president said. "These people are hard-working, legitimate members of our society. We ought to thank God they are here and have a respect for them and welcome them and not try topunish them in the way the majority of Congress has tried to do."

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