- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

The wood stork, the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise are delaying construction of a military cemetery in Florida.

Environmentalists are concerned that the burial ground for veterans would harm wetlands and the endangered species that live there.

Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, says he is “deeply disturbed” by the Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to approve quickly work on the site, west of Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County. He said animals and ponds should not take precedence over veterans.

“I don’t know what regiment the wood stork was in, but to hold up other members of the service corps, to have a critter take the place and hold the veterans off, it really does gall you,” Mr. Foley said yesterday.

The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed issuing a permit to allow the National Cemetery Administration to begin construction on the 313-acre South Florida National Veterans Cemetery for more than a year, so it can determine how to protect the wetlands and species.

Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Corps was given permit authority over the drudging or filling of wetlands.

Florida has the second largest population of veterans with 1.7 million — 500,000 of whom live in the 10 counties that will be serviced by the cemetery, where interments were originally scheduled to begin this year. California has the highest number of veterans, at 2.5 million.

“This new cemetery is desperately needed as a final resting place for veterans in southeast Florida. It is also important for the families of these veterans,” Mr. Foley said in a Dec. 21 letter to Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, commander and chief of engineers.

“Visiting the grave of a veteran should not involve a several-hundred-mile round-trip ordeal for these family members, many of whom are elderly themselves,” he said in the letter urging that the permitting process be expedited.

The permit process began one year ago, but this is “not an abnormal length of time,” said Mark Sudol, chief of the regulatory program for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Especially in South Florida, there are a significant number of endangered species, and there is a high workload down there,” Mr. Sudol said.

Richard Kollar, project manager of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), disagrees.

“The fact that we are approaching a year is quite surprising,” Mr. Kollar said. “I had hoped to have the permit in hand and under a construction contract.”

The Veterans Affairs Department bought the land in 2002 for $11.2 million. Mr. Kollar says 40 percent of the property contains low-grade wetlands with an invasive plant not native to the area. Officials planned to mitigate the situation with improvements to the wetlands.

“The design and master plan is to take the wetland features and make it part of the overall ambiance of the cemetery, which is very indigenous to South Florida, and the thrust has been to keep that South Florida feeling while still developing a considerably large interment area,” Mr. Kollar said.

Additionally, four acres have been set aside as a tortoise preserve, and Mr. Kollar says the Fish and Wildlife Service is satisfied with the measures taken to protect the endangered wildlife.

“We understand the Corps’ concerns. They are not artificially creating this. These are mandates they have to deal with, and it’s a matter of us working with them to strike a good engineering balance to develop the property and to serve the veterans,” Mr. Kollar said.

The Corps will present a mitigation plan later this month, and if the NCA agrees to the directives, the permit process will move forward. If the NCA “wants to negotiate, it may take longer,” Mr. Sudol said.

Veterans are understanding of the delicate negotiations and are hopeful a “happy medium” can be reached soon.

“The South Florida wetlands are a national treasure, just as our veterans are who helped save the world from tyranny this past century,” said Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“We hope that a solution can be reached so that a veterans cemetery can be built without any adverse affects on the environment and vice versa,” Mr. Davis said.

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