What would you think of utility company proposals to construct new electric transmission lines through Everglades National Park on land that's valuable for restoring the "River of Grass"? What if that project set a precedent that could jeopardize other National Park System lands across the nation? Those are key questions as the National Park Service evaluates a land exchange that's part of Florida Power and Light Co. plans to build power lines through part of Everglades National Park.
Whoa—what's afoot here?
The answer is...a very complex issue that involves several national hot-button issues for national parks and the country as a whole.
The nation is grappling with developing a sound energy policy that relies on sources that are both domestic and "greener," but do the benefits of obtaining energy from such sources justify building power transmission lines across national park property? A proposed project in Florida would string about seven miles of high voltage lines from 100-foot tall concrete transmission towers through part of Everglades National Park.
Not only would this project set back efforts to restore natural groundwater flows through the River of Grass, but the electricity would come from an expanded nuclear generating station, which raises yet other questions: Where would the utility obtain up to 80 million gallons of cooling water a day—and what impact might that have on the nearby Biscayne National Park and Biscayne Bay?
A key element in this debate is the broader question of how the NPS responds when owners of inholdings (private property within the boundaries of a national park) propose to develop the property in ways that threaten basic park values. The best solution is for the NPS to simply buy the land, but that requires a willing seller and timely funding. Another option—condemnation—can involve expensive and lengthy litigation, and the political clout and resolve to see the process through.
A third option is one now being considered in the Everglades: a land exchange.
According to Sara Fain, the Everglades Restoration program manager in the National Parks Conservation Association's Sun Coast office in Florida, utility giant Florida Power and Light (FPL) has been considering nine different alternatives for new transmission corridors to carry electricity from an expanded nuclear power plant. Only one, she says, goes through Everglades, but it involves a controversial land exchange.
The exchange is questionable because it would swap park-owned land for an inholding currently owned by FPL. If the land swap goes through, it would move the proposed transmission corridor to the edge of the park. Is this a good idea, or merely the lesser of two evils?
"It can set a very dangerous precedent," Ms. Fain says. "People will look at this and wonder what else can happen to our national parks? Once we lose land from our national parks, we never get it back."
And if this project is given the go-ahead, what does that mean for other national parks that fall in the path of proposed power transmission lines elsewhere in the nation? All of those factors are in play at Everglades National Park. Here's some background on a subject that will be the focus of lively debate in coming months:
The Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act of 1989 expanded the boundaries of Everglades National Park by about 109,600 acres. That act (and additional legislation) authorized the NPS and Army Corps of Engineers to acquire privately owned lands located within the expanded boundary. Among the parcels authorized for acquisition is a strip that's 330 to 370 feet wide and about 7.4 miles long. This 320-acre tract runs north-south within the "East Everglades Addition" and is owned by Florida Power and Light.
Ah, the plot thickens.
An important backdrop to this power corridor issue is the ongoing effort by state and federal agencies to restore the natural water flow into and through Everglades National Park. That water is a critical part of this complex coastal ecosystem, but the flow has been altered by development outside the park, including man-made canals and drainage ditches and roads that act as dams.
According to one analysis,
The purposes of the  expansion of Everglades National Park include the preservation of the outstanding natural features of the park, enhancement and restoration of the ecological values, natural hydrologic conditions, and public enjoyment of such area by adding the area commonly known as the Northeast Shark River Slough and the East Everglades, [and] assurance that the park can maintain the natural abundance, diversity, and ecological integrity of the ecosystem.
One of the keys to achieving that restoration, according to Everglades officials, is the currently undeveloped Florida Power property, which they say is "needed for the restoration and enhancement of the ecosystem (through improvement of natural hydrologic conditions), as well as to ensure that the park’s fundamental resources and values are maintained."
If the power lines were to be built on this tract, the tall concrete towers wouldn't be the only impact. Some reports indicate considerable fill would be required to provide stable footings for each tower, and a road would likely be needed along the right-of-way to provide access for construction and ongoing maintenance. All that work would have major impacts on the environment and further complicate the water-flow issues.
What does Florida Power think? The utility company says this property is a vital route for transmission lines to carry high voltage electrical power from a planned expansion of FPL's Turkey Creek nuclear power facility.
Simply stated, FPL isn't interested in selling the property to the NPS...but they're willing to trade it for another piece of park land so they can move ahead with the power line construction.
A spokesman said the utility is under orders from the state Public Service Commission (PSC) to diversify from natural gas and to find a cleaner fuel than coal to meet greenhouse-gas reductions pushed by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Furthermore, the utility says expanding its nuclear power capacity is the only viable way to meet those requirements—and expanding the Turkey Creek plant requires new lines to deliver the electricity to consumers.
One big challenge: Where to put those new power lines. Routes that don't involve national parks aren't very popular either. Proposals for new 100-foot-high concrete towers for transmission lines along 18 miles of U. S. Highway 1 have stirred opposition from local residents and government officials. It's a classic NIMBY ("Not in my backyard") issue, and one that could increase pressure to use "undeveloped" areas such as park property for such utility lines.
Florida's two U. S. senators feel they have a solution for the dilemma involving the Everglades property, and they included it in the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009. As summarized in a park document, that Act:
identified NPS property at the eastern edge of the East Everglades Addition as potential lands to be exchanged for the FPL property. The act authorized the Secretary of the Interior to exchange NPS lands for the FPL property and to convey a perpetual easement on lands contiguous to the NPS exchange lands for the purpose of vegetation management. The potential land exchange would be subject to such terms and conditions as the secretary may require.
In short, this approach would move the location of the proposed transmission corridor to the eastern edge of the park. Park property at that site would be swapped for the existing Florida Power tract. Perhaps the easiest way to visualize the areas involved and all of the proposed power line routes is to download the map available on this FPL website. You'll find more detail on part of the route through the park on this map.
Is a land swap an appropriate solution to the issue?
One opponent of the project offered this analysis:
Three separate lines would cross approximately seven miles of what is currently national park property on more than 300 towers. Two of the three lines would carry 500,000 volts along towers 150 feet tall, while the third would carry 230,000 volts along 90-foot towers.
Consequences for the park would be enormous. First of all, the towers would dominate the eastern horizon of the entire East Everglades Expansion Area—the heart of the Shark River Slough and the main source of water for Everglades National Park. They would be visible as far away as the popular Shark Valley Visitor Center and tram/bicycle path.
"What the park has done for the last 20 years is buy these (privately owned) parcels," Ms. Fain said, referring to the directive the 1989 expansion legislation handed the Park Service. "Now they're looking at doing something completely different, which would be a land swap. They would give land currently in Everglades National Park to Florida Power and Light in exchange for land further west inside the park. The end result is that Everglades National Park's boundaries would be over 200 acres less than what it is today. This sets a really dangerous precedent for how our federal government is going to manage our national parks when there are private interests involved. It might be 200 acres today, but what is it tomorrow?"
The land exchange is authorized—but not required—by the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009, and among the key factors will be those "terms and conditions" included as part of any deal. If the park had to accept one of the two locations, a superficial analysis suggests the location on the edge of the park would be preferable to the route closer to the center of the park, but this decision is too important for a hasty answer. According to Ms. Fain, both tracts of land fall within the Shark Slough drainage. The parcel owned outright by the Park Service and which is being proposed for the swap contains "very high quality wetlands, which have a high ecological function," she said.
"The lands that they're proposing to give to Florida Power and Light is also land that is within the restoration plan for restoration and protection," continued Ms. Fain. "If we did this land swap, not only would we not be able to protect this land and restore it, but we would destroy it because they would need to fill the wetlands in order to build the transmission corridor."
So, what's next? Everglades officials currently are working on an environmental assessment to "determine the possible impacts, if any, on the environment from the potential land exchange and other reasonable alternatives. The environmental assessment will also serve to develop the appropriate terms and conditions for the potential exchange."
Under the current time-line, work on the draft EA is scheduled to be completed in October, and the document would be distributed for a 30-day public comment period in November. The comments received would then be analyzed; the goal for release of the final EA is December 2009.
Even while work on the EA is under way, Florida Power has taken an interesting position on the project. Information on their website states:
Although FPL currently owns sufficient right-of-way in fee or by easement for this Project through the Everglades National Park (ENP) and the Water Conservation Area 3B (WCA-3B), FPL has been working cooperatively with multiple federal and state agencies to relocate this portion of the right-of-way to outside the ENP.
To that end, these agencies have entered into agreements with FPL to implement the relocation. This land exchange has been authorized by the federal Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
FPL is agreeable to the proposed right-of-way exchange in this area if this can be accomplished in a timely manner and is therefore proposing the relocated right-of-way as its West Preferred Corridor.
Finally, there are other park-related issues in Florida Power's proposed expansion of the Turkey Creek nuclear plant. Among the unanswered questions about the project's effects on Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park: where will the plant get up to 80 million gallons of cooling water a day in an area that has already faced water rationing in recent years?
That brings us to a pair of meetings this week. The South Florida Regional Planning Council and Miami-Dade County Planning and Zoning Department will "co-host two, informational, public meetings" about Florida Power's plans "to expand nuclear energy production at its Turkey Point facility in Miami-Dade County. The proposed project consists of the construction of two new nuclear units ... and supporting facilities, as well as the placement of new transmission lines."
The meetings will be held Monday, August 31, in Homestead, Florida and Wednesday, September 2, in Coral Gables, Florida. You'll find details, including times and locations, on this site.
These meetings won't determine the final outcome, but they should be instructive—and could be important. According to the sponsors of the events: According to the sponsors of the events:
Attendees will be given an overview of the project and the review process. The public will also have an opportunity to ask questions and provide comment. Information received may be used to formulate an affected agency’s recommendation, regarding the application.
Given the political, economic, and environmental stakes—and the clout of some of the players—this is an issue with no easy answers. Will the eventual outcome lay the groundwork for similar questions across the country?
Stay tuned. I also hope you'll stay involved in the process.