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Rebirth for Everglades

UNITED States Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona, is accustomed to wide horizons.

His new position in President Clinton's Cabinet provides plenty of opportunity to think big, and that's just what Mr. Babbitt is doing in regard to his job as the overseer of the nation's natural resources.

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Babbitt has scanned the horizon and decided to take on one of the biggest and most endangered areas to develop a model that can be applied to many situations, not only in the US, but also in third-world nations.

Babbitt has chosen to focus on the huge, diverse, and badly mistreated Florida Everglades. His thesis is that many of the nation's varied regions have common characteristics and problems and can profit by the example of the projected program, which will tackle the vast Everglades ecosystem, of which Everglades National Park is a major component.

The interior secretary is not alone in seeing common, or at least comparable, situations in "ecosystems" in all sections of the country. Natural resources agencies, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers - in past years the great straightener of streams and drainer of wetlands - appear to have seen the error of past ways.

The Everglades have been not only allowed to deteriorate over past decades, but wantonly abused.

According to one Everglades official, the entire system could "fail' (degrade beyond the point of reversal) within 20 years.

It is estimated that the price for restoring a reasonably large part of the Everglades would be from about $400 million to $600 million, and at this point the project is not assured of funding even at the lower figure.

One thing Babbitt does have is strong backing by the professionals involved with Everglades National Park and the larger Everglades ecosystem.

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Funding or not, they have already begun to make plans. An initial planning meeting was held in April, and another will take place early this month.

The 1.4 million-acre Everglades Park was established in 1947.

But the true size (nearly 3 million acres) and ecological significance of this complex wetland have only recently been understood.

Babbitt's policy of considering whole systems rather than seeking to protect individual species has struck a resonating chord in the environmental movement.

This initiative deserves the encouragement of all who recognize the value of our natural resources.

And Mr. Clinton needs to make clear his commitment to this effort.

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