Commercial Airport Near the Everglades Will Not Fly

WASHINGTON, DC, January 16, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Air Force has rejected a proposed commercial airport on the former Homestead Air Force Base located 30 miles south of Miami and less than 10 miles from Biscayne and Everglades National Parks.


Everglades National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The Record of Decision issued today makes it clear that the Air Force believes a commercial airport so close to the two parks "poses unacceptable risks to these national resources."

The decision pleased environmentalists, who were concerned that the noise and pollution from hundreds of commercial flights a day would disturb the fragile ecosystems. But a group of airport developers were frustrated by the decision.

The Record of Decision, signed by assistant secretary of the Air Force Ruby DeMesme, releases 717 acres of land free of charge to Miami-Dade County which had proposed and promoted the airport. The county can choose to use the land for "mixed use development" including commercial, residential and recreational uses.

If the county chooses not to meet these requirements, the land will be offered to the federal government through the Department of Interior, the option advocated by environmental groups.


The Homestead Air Force Reserve Base is home to the 482nd Fighter Wing (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)
The decision specifically bars the use of this land for a commercial airport, although the Air Force will retain the airfield and runway for federal use.

"Neither land banking nor commercial airport development nor use to support commercial airport development will be permitted," wrote DeMesme.

The Air Force gave environmental reasons for its ruling. "The parks are under assault from urbanization and other pressures," wrote DeMesme. "There is a huge national and state investment being made in protecting and restoring the south Florida ecosystem. The circumstances heighten the stakes for making sound environmental decisions related to Homestead and tip the balance in favor of the parks where it is possible to do so," she wrote.


Woodpecker in Everglades National Park (Photo courtesy Dr. Labush's Links to Learning)
"This decision is a victory for common sense and public input over special interests. An airport with 600 flights a day over the Everglades was an abomination," said Bradford Sewell, senior project attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now we will need to make sure whatever is developed at Homestead protects the national parks and is consistent with Everglades restoration."

Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club said, "Environmental groups had hoped the Air Force would honor a request by the Interior Department for a land exchange with developers to create low impact tourism and commercial uses."

Environmental groups will monitor the situation closely to make sure the Record of Decision is complied with, and some environmentalists suspect Miami-Dade County may not protect the parks to their satisfaction.

Alan Farago of the Everglades Defense Council said, "Giving this land to Miami-Dade County leaves open a wild card that can be played in support of the parks or against them. Officials at Miami-Dade County have proved time again that they are fully capable of being extremely inventive when it comes to destroying our national heritage."


A fighter aircraft hangar on the Homestead Air Base damaged by Hurricane Andrew (Photo courtesy Fiberlock Technologies, Inc.)
The Homestead Air Base was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, an event that triggered the decision of the Air Force to declare portions of the property "in excess of Air Force needs and surplus to the federal government."

The 2,916 acre base about 25 miles southwest of Miami and seven miles east of Homestead, Florida was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund List of the nation's most hazardous sites in August 1990. Contamination consisting of jet fuel and heavy metals exists in many small areas around the base. Canals drain the contaminated stormwater into Biscayne National Park. Contaminated soil and groundwater have been removed and the last remedy is projected for June 2002.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and a group of developers worked to convince the Air Force to reaffirm its conditional support for the airport expressed in 1994. They believe it is required to revive Homestead's economy and take pressure off crowded Miami International Airport, about 30 miles away.


Biscayne National Park (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
In a decision that DeMesme characterized as "uniquely difficult," she wrote that the Air Force "does not doubt the conclusions of the Federal Aviation Administration and Miami-Dade County that additional aviation capacity will eventually be needed in South Florida." But environmental considerations prevailed.

The Air Force will require that whatever use is eventually made of the land measures must be put in place to protect the pine rocklands. Pre-construction surveys must determine the presence of the threatened eastern indigo snake to allow for its protection.

The coalition against the airport includes local and federal politicians, Republicans like Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire; most of Florida’s congressional delegation, including Democrats Senator Bill Nelson and Congressman Peter Deutsch.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said a commercial airport would "degrade" the national parks. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner also expressed opposition.