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Associated Press

Everglades Decision Criticized

John Heilprin

The Bush administration's hand in removing the Everglades from a United Nations list of endangered sites was denounced Friday by a Florida senator.

Democrat Bill Nelson characterized it as improper meddling by Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Todd Willens at a U.N. meeting in June in New Zealand.

The decision could slow progress on Everglades restoration by detracting from the sense of urgency. Congress approved the 40-year project in 2000, saying it would split the costs 50-50 with Florida. But the state has paid most of $7 billion tab so far on a project expected to cost up to $20 billion.

Nelson said he will call a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee he chairs to investigate the matter once Congress returns from its August vacation.

"The U.N. should have been presented with the position of our agency experts," Nelson wrote Thursday to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "This action is unacceptable and, I believe, warrants Willens' removal."

The largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States - a rich tangle of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests and rare species - was added to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's list of the world's most outstanding sites in 1979.

UNESCO gave the Everglades endangered status in 1993, because of urban growth and pollution and severe damage from Hurricane Andrew a year earlier.

But in late June, the U.N. heritage group announced that the Everglades and the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras should no longer be considered in danger, because of improved preservation at both sites.

The U.N. World Heritage List now covers 851 properties, including 30 in danger of disappearing because of natural or human threats.

But according to Nelson, UNESCO should have listened to the National Park Service, which offered an update on the Everglades in February, and to the World Conservation Union, or IUCN, a Swiss-based network that recommended keeping the Everglades on the endangered list.

Willens, the Interior Department's No. 3 official, confirmed that he had recommended that UNESCO remove the Everglades from the endangered list. But he said he did so because the U.N. heritage group had suggested it.

"From our standpoint, it's purely a label. It wouldn't change anything; our commitment remains the same," Willens said. "They thought the Everglades was a distraction to other sites in the heritage program that were in tragic form."

A UNESCO spokesperson could not be reached Friday for comment.

Willens said he made only minor edits on the Park Service's technical report, and he would not step down from his job though he'd be happy to meet with Nelson.

"For the most part the report remained intact, but nowhere does it make a recommendation on the Everglades," Willens said. "We changed no other scientific reports."

Willens was policy director for ex-House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican and rancher who unsuccessfully tried to scale back the Endangered Species Act. Willens also was among a group of congressional staffers who visited the Mariana Islands on a trip paid by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.

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