Eagle-eyed Auduboner Keeps Golf Course Off Wetlands, May 1991

From the Audubon Activist, May 1991

In November 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency drew a line through a tract of coastal mangroves 15 miles south of Miami. The owner of the land wanted to build a 253-home resort community, the centerpiece of which was to be a “championship” golf course designed by the Golden Bear him-self Jack Nicklaus. The developer was told not to cross east of the line into fragile wetlands. Miami’s Tropical Audubon Society had spent two years fighting the golf course. Inspired by the tireless efforts of Karsten Rist, conservation chair at the time, a legion of Auduboners and other activists had succeeded in halving the acreage of wetlands to be filled for development. Rist and the others saw the line as a reasonable compromise. But by the end of 1989, the developer had declared he needed “only” 8 acres east of the line to make a profit–the additional space was indispensable for the Nicklaus designed course, he said. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers relented and prepared to issue a Section 403 permit for the project. The state and county had caved in earlier, and the EPA stood on the sidelines. Nobody wanted to squabble over a few acres–except Rist.

‘Lo and Behold’

Sitting behind his desk in the office of his modest plastics manufacturing business, surrounded by photographs of wildlife, Rist picks up the story in his gentle German accent. “I had gotten a copy of the developer’s maps and they just did not seem to match the EPA’s description of the development line,” says the 59-year-old former mining engineer. “Kevin Sarsfield, president of Tropical, and I went back to the site with a 100-foot tape measure, located the EPA’s red flags, and marked them off. Lo and behold, the line on the developer’s map was drawn in error.”

Rist notified the EPA of his discovery in February 1990. The agency asked the developer to draw a new map. It showed almost 16 acres of golf course east of the line–enough to renew the EPA’s interest. The project was halted temporarily.

With the issue reopened, Rist redoubled his efforts and whipped up the support of Tropical Audubon members and other local groups. He also worked closely with Larry Thompson, Audubon’s Southeast regional vice-president, and with Audubon’s legal staff in Washington, D. C., to increase pressure at the national level.

When the developer claimed he couldn’t move the project, Rist and members of his conservation committee identified owners of contiguous land who were willing to sell. When the developer argued that his plan was unique, Rist sent the Corps a brochure from an identical community a few miles to the north.

Gradually, the tide was turning. Rist and company kept the pressure on. They were in constant contact with the local media. The Miami Herald reported every turn of events and focused public attention on the mangrove wetlands and their value. Activists wrote letters to the EPA asking that the permit question be considered at the national level. National Audubon Society joined in filing a 60-day notice of intent to sue should a permit be granted.

Finally, last November the EPA regional office in Atlanta announced it would veto the proposed permit. The developer was forced to recognize the EPA’s line. He bought more land west of the line and redesigned the golf course. Although about 50 acres of wetlands will be lost, an equivalent amount will be restored as mitigation. The wetlands east of the line will eventually be turned over to the National Park Service as part of Biscayne National Park, which is adjacent to the area.

A Group Effort

South Florida owes a great debt to Rist for his vigilance. The mangrove wetlands he saved are part of the vanishing Florida swampland vital to the state’s wildlife. Herons, egrets, and ibises nest in mangrove swamps, and the Interior Department has identified some 16 species sport fish that depend on the swamps, as well as 18 species of birds, reptiles, and mammals that are threatened or endangered.

Not one to rest on his accomplishments, Rist has continued to monitor Florida wetland issues. The Corps and the EPA have begun an “advance identification” program along the remaining shoreline of Biscayne National Park. The program will designate wetlands to be protected–sort of an “extension of the old development line, ” says Rist, who will be watching closely.

An Audubon member for 20 years, Rist is always ready for the next conservation challenge. Each one is different, he says. “You have to look at the particular circumstances and find the pressure point, where you can make your case. ”

Above all, “You can’t do it alone. The Sierra Club, the local Wildlife Federation, the Friends of the Everglades, the reporters from the Herald, agency employees, and lots of other people who were sick and tired of seeing our mangroves bulldozed –they all share in this success. ”

Larry Williams is a free-lance writer living in Miami.

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