- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

Western property-rights defenders are coming to the aid of thousands of Floridians who say their land is being flooded by the federal government to protect an endangered species in the Everglades.
Homeowners say the constant flooding is an effort to force them to sell their homes, and some scientists are questioning whether the rare Cape Sable seaside sparrow is being helped.
Led by the Paragon Foundation, dozens of grass-roots groups are organizing the "Sawgrass Rebellion" to bring national attention to the plight of farmers who say their tropical orchards and property values have been destroyed.
"They don't ever give up. They don't ever stop flooding us and trying to take our property," said Madeleine Fortin, a homeowner and leading activist.
Caravans from Klamath Falls, Ore., and Darby, Ohio, will leave Sept. 28 and hold nearly 40 rallies in 20 states before arriving in Florida on Oct. 17 for three days of protests.
The veteran activists have spent years battling the Endangered Species Act, which they say is a tool used by environmentalists and the federal government to drive people off the land.
Residents say the flooding is linked to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan designed to preserve the famous "river of grass," control water flows and prevent flooding.
One component of the project involves holding back water during the Cape Sable sparrow's nesting season in the Everglades. This forces a rise in the water table elsewhere, resulting in the flooding of nearby private land, opponents say.
The Corps of Engineers has also taken steps toward condemning 100 houses overlooking the flooded land, because federal authorities say Everglades National Park needs that land as a buffer zone.
The Corps of Engineers denies that its activities are causing the flooding and defends its efforts to purchase some of the property at what it says is fair market value.
"We don't agree with all of that, and we are very careful not to do that," said Richard Bonner, deputy district engineer in Jacksonville. "These people are flooded because they live in a flood-prone area."
The affected residents have also taken their fight to the courts, saying Congress did not give the Corps of Engineers authority to buy the 100 houses and surrounding property. Virginia Albrecht and a team of lawyers with Hunton & Williams in Washington have taken the case pro bono to defend some of the property owners.
A federal district court in the District agreed with the owners last month. The Corps of Engineers has not decided whether to appeal.
When Congress approved the Everglades project in 1989, it determined that the Corps of Engineers should protect the community from flooding by building a levy.
"The Corps is doing the opposite. Instead of protecting them, they are flooding them," Mrs. Albrecht said. "And there is absolutely no evidence there is any need to condemn this land and destroy these people's homes in order to restore the Everglades."
G.B. Oliver, president of the Paragon Foundation, said the sparrow is a ruse to force the residents off land west of Miami known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area. He said the plan to save the sparrows is not based on sound science and has yet to pass nongovernmental peer review.
"They pick out a species, make up what its habitat needs to be and go forward. But they can't stand scrutiny, and that's what we want to do," Mr. Oliver said. "If they are right, get on with it. But we don't think the science will hold up."
Miss Fortin said the decision to protect the bird was based on "junk science." William Post, curator of ornithology for the Charleston Museum and a leading authority on the sparrow agrees, saying the birds live as far as 400 miles from the Everglades.
"I don't think it was based on objective science myself, having worked on this species for 30 years," Mr. Post said.
"They move around a lot in response to unpredictable events like hurricanes and floods; there's no point in flooding tens of thousands of acres of ground just to save a few birds on the west side," he said.
"The birds would move out if they got flooded. They weren't going to stay put. In evolutionary terms, they would all have been extinct by now," he said.
This is the fourth dispute pitting the federal government against private-property owners for which the western activists have arranged protests.
A "shovel brigade" was formed in Jarbidge, Nev., to protest the government's closing of a road to protect the endangered bull trout. Supporters from across the country showed up to help the community clear large boulders blocking the road.
Last summer the activists took on the cause of farmers in the Klamath Valley of Oregon and California, forcibly opening flood gates that prevented water from reaching farms.

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