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Biscayne National Park

Jobs Versus Ecology in South Florida

Proposed airport raises questions for Miami area

[Originally published in Newsday; not in online archive.]

Homestead, FL—At Biscayne National Park, near Florida’s southern tip, visitors are greeted with silence.

In this netherworld of empty mangrove islands and long stretches of brackish water, of twisted paths and gnarled roots that branch and splinter like nerve endings, the silence is broken only by the whoosh of a pelican diving for food or the piercing cry of a startled egret.

But the quiet may soon be replaced by the sound of jet planes flying overhead, one of many sweeping changes that will come to this rural area if Miami-Dade County goes through with its controversial plan to build a commercial airport at an abandoned Air Force base two miles away.

At issue is a planned $16-million airline terminal with a hotel, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and offices. Related businesses and subdivisions are expected to sprout up around them, radically transforming the landscape of tomato farms and bean fields that now surround the site.

Environmentalists say noise from commercial planes would far exceed that of the former base because of the number of flights. They also fear that increased development could harm Everglades National Park, just 10 miles away, at a time when the Everglades is undergoing a massive $1.4-billion restoration project.

“The Everglades is perhaps America’s most threatened ecosystem…Putting a commercial airport next to the Everglades makes no sense logically…,” said Alan Ferrago, a spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Miami chapter.

“This is the largest airport ever planned for the edge of a national park. It’s a terrible precedent for the protection of public lands…It threatens some of America’s most priceless national treasures.”

But to Homestead, the farming town in the midst of all this turmoil, the airport holds its greatest hope for an economic turnaround. Devastated in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, the costliest natural disaster in the nation’s history, the town was largely deserted by its middle class afterward. And losing the air base meant losing more than $400 million a year from its economy.

“We’re trying to rebuild a community,” said Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver.

“This area needs a shot in the arm,” agreed South Dade tree farmer Walter Vick. “My children are at an age where they’re looking for jobs. In this area, they have a very difficult time finding a job that pays a reasonable amount of money.”

Animosity between proponents of the plan and environmentalists is predictably thick. Already riled by the original plan, which called for a politically connected group of builders to develop the site, environmentalists were outraged when plans were expanded after documents had already been submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Now the federal government has decided a 1994 assessment report failed to address many environmental questions and has ordered another study, delaying the project by at least 18 months.

One of the issues examined in the new study will be the impact on water quality, which is crucial to Biscayne National Park, an estuary that depends on a clean freshwater flow from the surrounding area. Airport effluent could undermine it, although proponents say that if new, stricter rules are implemented, that won’t be a problem.

In addition, both Biscayne and Everglades National Parks need a wide buffer zone.

“Birds don’t know where a park boundary is,” said Biscayne National Park Superintendent Dick Frost. “Wildlife depends on a much larger ecosystem that surrounds it.”

And then there’s the other bird hazard: birds to airplanes. Birds can get sucked into the planes’ engines, causing emergency landings or crashes. The Air Force calls this problem “Bird strikes,” and says 57 people were killed between 1985 and 1995 from such accidents.

So far, no one has proposed a plan that would help economically depressed Homestead and still preserve the environment.

Even some who stand to benefit from a new airport are ambivalent about it.

“My intentions are to farm this land and earn a living, but hey, someday this may not be worth it to me,” said potato farmer Dwayne Williams.

Selling their land is something Williams and other farmers say they have been forced to consider, especially as Mexican competition has cut into their profits.

Farming has always been “in our blood,” Williams said, but if his land becomes more desirable because of the airport, “there may be an offer I can’t refuse.”