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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: After years of haggling over the future of Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida, the Clinton administration is saying no to a commercial airport there. The base was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and county officials pushed the airport idea to boost the local economy and relieve air traffic at Miami International Airport. Opponents argue the base's proximity to the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks make it the wrong place to host hundreds of flights a day. But as Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, just what will become of the base is up in the air.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Clinton administration's decision to block an airport spilled out onto the Web and wires within minutes of its release, demonstrating how national an issue the Homestead base has become. Alan Ferago says that's because the proposed runways flew in the face of a $7.8 billion federal effort to restore the Everglades.

FERAGO: You cannot invest the amount of money we are talking about investing in the Everglades, which is a cornerstone of the environmental agenda, and at the same time support a billion dollar commercial airport. So finally, in the end, we were able to engage national environmental groups and, really, citizens across the nation in raising the stakes and raising the awareness that our national parks have to be protected from what could have turned out to be a devastating precedent.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ferago directs the Everglades Defense Council. He says a major airport isn't the only way to help the economy in south Miami-Dade County. He envisions Homestead as a model gateway for the national parks that flank it. And now, he's hopeful that will happen. If the word "gateway" brings to mind images of strip malls and theme parks, Ferago says think again.

FERAGO: Right now we have a stretch of U.S. Route 1 that is filled with signage from Holiday Inns to Kentucky Fried Chickens. It really looks quite similar to many of the other sort of blighted landscapes that fringe our national parks at the entrance. What we need to do at Homestead is find a better way, a more sensitive way, to develop and to plan for that kind of area, in order to keep people coming and to preserve the natural landscape.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The proposal Ferago favors features a world-class aquarium and an eco-friendly golf course. The Air Force plans to keep using the existing runways for its small reserve unit. The rest of the land, 717 acres, will be offered to Miami-Dade County. But county mayor Alex Panelas says he wants the land at Homestead to be used for public runways. He says South Florida's current airports are maxed out, and he doesn't believe a new one here would harm the wetlands or coral reefs. Mayor Panelas points to an environmental impact statement issued in December by the Air Force. The document concluded that an airport should not be ruled out because of environmental impacts. What happened between then and now?

PANELAS: I don't know what happened, but I do believe it was an erroneous decision, and one that does have the potential of impacting not just the south Dade economy but the economy of this entire region.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The airport's developers have filed a federal suit against the ruling. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County officials have 90 days to decide whether to accept the federal government's offer of land without an airport. That's not what the mayor had in mind.

PANELAS: We applied for the aviation advance because we believe the south Florida area needs a new supplemental airport. So right now, we don't have any quote-unquote mixed use plans ready to go. Nor, quite frankly, has a policy decision been made by the board and myself, that we want to be in the economic development business.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If the county decides to forego its mixed use opportunity, the land will be turned over to the Bush administration's Department of the Interior. Alan Ferago doesn't expect there to be a problem during the transition.

FERAGO: It's not on the order of a last-minute decision. The Homestead Air Force Base controversy that began in the throes of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 has really taken a long time to unwind. So we think that when the Bush administration has the opportunity to review this decision, it will support whole-heartedly the reuse of the Homestead Air Force Base in a way that's consistent with the long-term goals of Everglades restoration.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If the Interior Department ends up with Homestead, the likely outcome is a land swap. The department's been eyeing mineral rights on a piece of Florida land that's owned by the same developers who want to build an aquarium on the base. The idea is the government would get those mineral rights, and the developers would get Homestead. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

TOOMEY: Coming up: The cool side of global warming. Melting ice in polar Canada reveals archaeological treasures. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Maggie Villiger.

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