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Will the “Sawgrass Rebellion” scheduled for next month in Homestead, Fla., to protest the Everglades restoration plan be another South Florida blip on the government vs. property owner radar screen? Or, could it be a political maneuver that succeeds in spotlighting what rebellion promoters like to call “junk science” and how they could lose their Miami-Dade homes because of it? Either way, it’s got the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several environmental groups. The rebellion centers on the 300 or so primarily residential property owners in what’s called the 8.5 Square Mile Area in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. For years, they’ve raised a ruckus over the federal government’s efforts to take their land as part of the ‘Glades restoration. They’ve organized groups, hired attorneys and sued. But despite U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore’s ruling in July that the feds don’t have the authority to force them out, residents still are fearful. With the U.S. Senate now back in session, there’s a possibility lawmakers will amend an appropriations bill that would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — charged with implementing the Everglades plan — to move forward. So, property owners figure, it’s time to ramp up the publicity. Residents and the Dade County Farm Bureau trade group plan a rally Oct. 19 at the Miami-Homestead Speedway in Homestead. Expecting upward of 35,000 people, promoters say singers Willie Nelson and Gloria Estefan may appear. Speedway spokesman Phil de Montmollin says he knows of the event but that so far there’s no formal booking. It’s all with a helping hand from the Paragon Foundation, which is pitching in $100,000 for the rally costs. The event actually begins in Naples-Fort Myers a couple of days earlier; a convoy then will travel over to Homestead. (Naples is involved because of protests over Everglades issues in a residential area called Golden Gates Estates.) Madeleine Fortin, an 8.5 SMA property owner and president of the 8.5 Square Mile Legal Defense Foundation, says the Sawgrass Rebellion is really a step toward a national coalition that would unite all property owners who contend Big Government is intruding on their private property rights. “It is becoming a tragedy and it’s based on junk science, most of the time,” she says. JUNK SCIENCE? Fortin describes incidents she says indicate how government manipulates environmental issues to make a case for land grabs: how lynx hair was “planted” in California just to keep people out of a certain area to be declared a lynx habitat; how a report about the nearly extinct Cape Sable seaside sparrow was misleading because the birds were counted during nesting season when the males don’t sing, far reducing their numbers; and, to promote flooding of an area, dryness in a sparrow habitat area was described as an arson danger but the only fire Fortin could find on record was one started by the bird counters’ helicopter. And so on. Eventually, Fortin bumped into the Paragon Foundation, based in Alamogordo, N.M. Fortin asked Paragon to become involved in the 8.5 SMA issue. Paragon’s Web site — adorned with American flags and liberty bells — states its mission is to “offset those forces prevailing in our society” that seek to destroy private property rights, stop productive uses of public land, force land management decisions detrimental to the environment, and destroy the customs and lifestyles of rural areas. J. Zane Walley, Paragon editor, lecturer and organizer of “rebellions,” is in town setting up the Homestead-Naples gig. Formed in the 1990s by New Mexico cattle ranchers fed up with governmental intrusion on their grazing lands, Paragon is funded by the estate of deceased petroleum lease negotiator-cum-rancher Tom Linebery, according to Walley. He won’t say how much money Linebery bequeathed, except to note that it’s “in the millions of dollars.” The group, Walley insists, is not against environmental protection, though he admits environmental groups describe Paragon members as eco-terrorists. Still, the Everglades restoration plan will kill, not help, the ‘Glades, Walley says. He cites environmental showdowns in Ohio and Oregon where Paragon helped live-off-the-land families face down government intervention in the name of trumped-up science. While the 8.5 SMA situation is different because it’s the first time Paragon has flown the flag for a primarily residential area, it’s still a case in point, Walley says. Since Paragon’s involvement, says Dade County Farm Bureau president David Kaplan, government agencies have paid more attention to residents. “In my humble opinion, just an old country boy who knows good land, the environmental movement is killing land they are trying to save,” says Paragon’s Walley. “Who wins here? No one. They push people out and kill the ‘Glades.” Well, now, that’s mighty tall talk for a cowboy from out West. Some South Florida folks familiar with environmental issues hint that Walley trekked in bull manure on his boots — and a far bigger political agenda. Alan Farago, the Sierra Club’s Everglades co-chairman in Miami, knows of the Paragon Foundation. “The timing on this is curious,” he notes. “I think it is politically designed to coincide with the governor’s election, and put pressure on gubernatorial candidates about the issues they [Paragon] advocate.” Farago, who was active in the Florida Keys about 10 years ago during formation of the marine sanctuary, believes Paragon is linked to a group that tried to stir up Keys residents against the sanctuary. “The problem with this group and others like it is that you can never really peel back the layers to where the money is,” he adds, noting that the marine sanctuary opponents consisted of Big Business like forest and timber companies. “These guys are anti-government until it comes time for their [farm] subsidy. … They have no credibility.” An environmental insider in South Florida who spoke on condition of anonymity took Farago’s comments a step further. “These are mostly large land owners and farmers who extort money from the federal government to get the highest value for their property,” he says. “There is a whole other agenda going on here in which the people who really want Everglades restoration to fail are actively engaged in using the 8.5 SMA as a kind of launching pad. They are outsiders, and we really don’t know where the money is coming from.” The insider also questioned to what extent the Miccosukee tribe is involved in the Sawgrass Rebellion, particularly because the tribe has been acquiring land in southern Miami-Dade County that government agencies had intended to acquire. Walley says the tribe is not publicly involved, but he declines to elaborate. Tribe general counsel Dexter Lehtinen did not return a phone call. “This isn’t 1776 and the king is not trying to house troops on people’s land,” says Richard Grosso, former general counsel for 1000 Friends of Florida and now general counsel for the Environmental and Land Use Law Center, a nonprofit law firm based at Nova Southeastern University. “We are trying to do the most extensive environmental restoration project the world has ever seen and we absolutely need chunks of land” for it, says Grosso, whose firm represents environmental groups in Everglades restoration matters. Not only is the 8.5 SMA a huge obstacle to the restoration project, but the issues “are so interwoven and complex that there isn’t room for someone to walk in with a slogan and single perspective, and ignore the science and reality,” he adds. At the Army Corps of Engineers office in Jacksonville, Fla., Richard Bonner says he welcomes Paragon’s involvement as he would any interested party. He’d never heard of Paragon, but other Corps officials and lawyers have, says Bonner, the deputy district engineer for project management. What puzzles him is why Paragon is adopting the 8.5 SMA cause when land takings there have been handled at fair market prices. As for Walley’s contention that the Everglades is being killed in the name of science, Bonner just doesn’t get it. “That’s just not true,” he says. “We think they [Paragon] has a place in the process. We just hope they are looking at the facts and basing their actions on facts.” Bonner expected to go on a hunting trip in mid-October. Instead, he figures he just might drop in on the rebellion.

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