Amid a great deal of noise currently being made about the environment in Florida – from Amendment 1’s sweeping mandates on land and water preservation funding to reports that Gov. Rick Scott has outlawed any official discussion about climate change — one player not getting much burn in that arena these days is Jeb Bush. That’s strange, writes Michael Grunwald in POLITICO, because it was under Governor Bush that Florida took on the largest-scale conservation effort in American history, in South Florida’s Everglades.
Wetlands were once considered wastelands, and Florida’s early settlers yearned to drain the marshes of the Everglades, to “reclaim” and “improve” a vast liquid wilderness of snakes and mosquitoes into a subtropical paradise for people. But now that half the original watershed is gone, sucked dry for farms or paved over for development, people have embraced what’s left of the Everglades as an iconic paradise in its own right, a unique ecosystem stretching from Orlando in the center of the state all the way down to Florida Bay at the tip. It’s not a breathtaking geological marvel like Yosemite; it’s mostly a flat, muddy expanse of shallow water and razor-edged sawgrass, in uncomfortable proximity to the sprawling civilization that is modern South Florida. But the Everglades is one of America’s most important ecological jewels, providing kitchens and nurseries for flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. It’s become a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue in the post-Earth Day era, forcing politicians of all stripes to pledge to save it and revive it.
Jeb Bush certainly did. Fifteen years after that awkward Oval Office ceremony, as he hopes to follow his father and brother to the White House—perhaps after a showdown with Clinton’s wife—the Everglades is an issue that sets him apart from other Republican candidates, a deviation from GOP orthodoxy on Big Government eco-spending. He spent a lot of time slogging through the swamp of Everglades policy, and the saga reveals a lot about his approach to power and politics.
If there’s one thing that both parties agree on, it’s that Republicans are not in favor of spending tons of money to rectify a looming environmental crisis that many Rs say isn’t even happening. But here Jeb Bush, as in so many other ways, is the exception that proves the rule:
It wasn’t the slash-and-burn anti-green style some expected from a free-market conservative who was born in the Texas oil patch, became a Miami developer and raked in donations from real estate and agriculture interests at a time when green Republicans were becoming an endangered species. But it wasn’t a purely environmental approach, either. The restoration plan that Bush supported was not just about the Everglades. It was also about flood control and water supply for the residents and businesses that share South Florida with the Everglades and depend on aquifers underneath the Everglades. He shepherded the Army Corps of Engineers plan to re-engineer and replumb the ravaged watershed through the Florida Legislature without a single dissenting vote, and despite his tightfisted reputation, he spent lavishly to get it started. But he also fought to make sure it did not prioritize nature over people, often siding with the sugar industry, development industry and other business allies against conservation groups. He routinely fought Everglades activists, over everything from an Enron subsidiary’s pitch to privatize the ecosystem’s water to Big Sugar’s push to delay water-quality deadlines to his own effort to create a sprawling biotech campus on the fringes of the marsh. But he still saw himself as the ecosystem’s champion, telling his team he didn’t need permission from environmentalists to save the Everglades.
Check out the entire well-done piece by the author of seminal Florida book The Swamp here.