By Jenny Coyle
The U.S. Air Force opposed it. The Department of Interior fought it. Thousands of people who signed postcards and petitions, made phone calls and held rallies from Miami to the heart of Yellowstone National Park were flat-out against it.
But the final nail in the coffin came on Jan. 16 when the Clinton administration rejected the proposal to convert Homestead Air Force Base in Florida's Miami-Dade County into a commercial jetport. Instead, the administration offered the county a portion of the land on the condition it be used for sustainable, non-polluting mixed-use development. If the county refuses, the land will revert to the Department of Interior.
The decision nixed a plan to send more than 600 jets a day over Biscayne and Everglades national parks - just two miles and eight miles from the base, respectively - breaking the silence and threatening pristine areas with air and water pollution and the sprawl that typically accompanies such developments.
Pat Kyle, a Miami Group member, was among the Sierra Club activists who toasted the victory with champagne, a celebration that was pictured in the Miami Herald.
"I got goosebumps," said Kyle, who mentioned in her toast that the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an ardent defender of the Everglades, must be smiling out there somewhere. "I was smiling for my children and my grandchildren that day. I don't have grandchildren yet, but I always think of them when something like this happens."
The Club fought the airport proposal for six years. The Air Force had closed the Homestead base in 1992 on the heels of Hurricane Andrew. Then Miami-Dade County commissioners, in a no-bid process, gave a 70-year contract to a politically connected firm to develop a commercial airport on the site.
But when the Air Force conducted an environmental impact study of the plan, it decided to prohibit commercial aviation at the base. The Department of Interior, National Marine Fisheries Service and Environmental Protection Agency all advised against the jetport.
In the meantime, Club activists kept up the pressure to reject the plan. And they came up with creative ways to draw public attention to the issue - even beyond Florida.
There was Manny the Manatee, a costume activists wore at public events and to bird-dog Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, a staunch supporter of the airport plan. And there was the rally this past summer in Yellowstone National Park where Florida Sen. Robert Graham (D), also a powerful airport supporter, held, ironically, a conference on protecting national parks. Members of the Club's Wyoming and Montana chapters protested at the conference and collected 300 postcards opposing the airport.
Kyle constructed her own extensive e-mail-alert list, starting with her sons in New York and Alabama. Every time phone calls and letters were needed, she fired off a message that spread instantly through a network of family, friends and co-workers across the country.
"I carried signs and spoke at meetings, and got everybody involved that I could - even my hairdresser," she said. "I did whatever Jonathan asked me to do."
That would be Jonathan Ullman, the Club's Everglades field representative. "This is a story of persistence," said Ullman who was fighting the airport as a volunteer before being hired by the Club in 1998. "People across the country realized that if the Everglades and Biscayne national parks were sacrificed to developers, then no national park anywhere in the country was safe. They came through because they supported the Everglades, but the ripple effect of this decision will be felt at all national parks."
Ullman, however, warned that conservationists can't let down their guard. As the Planet went to press, Penelas was advising the county commission to accept the Homestead land for mixed-use development and also join a lawsuit already filed by developers challenging the Air Force decision.
"State leaders must send a strong message that its residents - and anyone who appreciates the Everglades - don't want this noisy, polluting jetport," said Ullman. "We need Gov. Jeb Bush to take a stand in opposition to the plan and reject all future commercial aviation at this site."
Read Sierra Club Executive Director, Carl Pope's statement on the Homestead Air Base Victory.
Ask Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to publicly reject the Homestead jetport plan. He should lend his strong support to the Air Force recommendation for a mixed-use development plan - such as offices and tourist services - at the site. Tell him it will be good for the economy, and good for the national parks. Phone (850) 488-4441; fax (850) 487-0801; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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