Browner's Actions in Florida May Portend U.S. Environmental Policy : Cabinet: Clinton's choice to head EPA is on record as being wary of economic development at the expense of resources.


While Carol Browner was in Little Rock, Ark., and Washington last week, preparing to take over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a process server was lurking about her office in Florida, hoping to present her with a subpoena.

Though Browner is preparing to leave her post as chief of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation, the 37-year-old lawyer was being sought because she remains a central figure in the biggest and most complex environmental litigation in the state's history--an out-of-court settlement of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit accusing the state of permitting grave pollution of the Everglades National Park.

The settlement made Browner something of a heroine to the environmental community, the most conspicuous achievement in two brief but bold years of work in a state where population, economic development, and environmental protection collide in exquisite policy debates.

Environmentalists laud her performance on a range of issues, and note in particular the Everglades agreement that may eventually require a billion-dollar effort to increase and cleanse the flow of water from vegetable farms and sugar cane fields into the park and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

But others, including agriculture and development interests, say her actions over two years demonstrated a strict adherence to environmental positions at great expense to other elements in the state. Her record, they warn, portends of things to come from the new Administration.

Browner negotiated the Everglades settlement just six months after joining the cabinet of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1991. It put to the test her personal credo, which has since become a touchstone of Clinton Administration philosophy:

"The choice is not between environmental protection and economic growth," she declared shortly after taking office in Florida. "The choice is between a flourishing economy whose growth is based on pollution prevention and a sputtering economy whose growth is choked off by a deteriorating quality of life and the squandering of non-renewable resources." Powerful South Florida agricultural interests insist the settlement reveals a blind spot in her vision.

Andy Rackley, the general manager of the Florida Sugar Cane League, estimates that the agreement will eventually cost 15,000 to 16,000 jobs. Besides taking 35,000 acres out of production to create a $360-million water filtration system, he says as many as half of Florida's sugar cane growers may be forced out of business. Robert H. Buker Jr., a U.S. Sugar Corp. vice president, denies that polluted water is flowing into the park at all. Buker and other critics of the agreement bitterly contend that agriculture is being made a scapegoat for generations of growth and public policy that have remade all of south Florida.

Although it was the Everglades agreement that brought Browner into prominence, it was hardly her only mark in a state facing increasingly excruciating decisions in managing development and environmental protection.

According to sources both inside and outside the department, she took over a bureaucracy whose professional staff had grown increasingly dispirited during a state Administration that was sharply focused on economic objectives.

"She did an extraordinary job of pulling that agency up from flat on its face two years ago and building a group that is now proud that it works for the Florida environment," said Bernard Yokel, president of the Florida Audubon Society.

When she joined the Chiles cabinet, Browner did not bring lengthy management credentials, but she had moved steadily upward in environmental policy councils.

A native of Miami and a graduate of the University of Florida law school, she had worked on environmental policy issues for the state Legislature and for Citizen Action, the Washington-based environmental research and lobbying group where she met her husband, Michael Podhorzer.

She later served on the Washington staff of then-U.S. Sen. Chiles, handling issues such as expansion of Florida's Big Cypress wilderness area and banning oil and gas drilling off the Florida Keys. When Chiles retired from the Senate in 1989, she joined the staff of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, who was one of Congress' leading voices for environmental protection. She returned to Florida upon Chiles' election as governor.

At the environmental agency, she won the loyalty of professionals by declaring that when she erred, it would be on the side of the environment. From Democrats in the Legislature, she received admiration for her work on initiatives such as the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Everglades Protection Act. From adversaries, she gained respect as a negotiator. Says Rackley of the Sugar Growers League: "She is tough, very professional, extremely smart."

Of the appointments made by President-elect Bill Clinton until now, none has pleased environmental activists as much as Browner's--at least until former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt was named Thursday as secretary of the Interior.

When the Bush Administration sought to narrow the definition of wetlands, Browner was among state officials who protested most vehemently, warning that the guidelines under consideration--and later dropped--would exclude parts of the the Everglades from protection. Early in the Democratic presidential primary season, she joined in arranging a Florida conference on global warming and succeeded in getting all candidates to answer questions via satellite.

With environmental groups pushing for increased waste recycling and less incineration, she persuaded the Legislature to adopt a two-year ban on additional incinerators.

And, though it raised some eyebrows at the outset, she negotiated a landmark deal in which the Walt Disney Co. will be permitted to fill 400 acres of wetlands. In exchange, the company will make a $40-million contribution to the purchase and restoration of an 8,500-acre ranch to be preserved as wildlife habitat by the Nature Conservancy.

Some environmentalists objected to the Disney deal because they saw in it the possibility that wealthy developers or landowners might be permitted to destroy wetlands as long as they had money to buy other wetlands or join into a wetlands "bank."

But Browner's view, which has now been widely accepted, is that preserving wetlands in large blocks is strategically important and that the ranch being bought by Disney and the Nature Conservancy may be the beginning of a vast wetlands and wildlife habitat bank in central Florida.

"If you are going to rescue wildlife, and endangered wildlife in particular, you have to think big," said Yokel of Florida Audubon, "you have to preserve big systems. You can't do it in little swatches."

At the EPA, where Browner is to succeed administrator William K. Reilly next month, she faces an agenda and administrative responsibilities that dwarf those in Tallahassee. In the words of Russell Train, a former EPA administrator and former chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, the youngest of the top Administration officials will be taking on "one of the hottest of Washington's hot seats."

Browner will be put in charge of a 17,000-employee federal bureaucracy with a $7-billion budget and responsibility for frequently controversial environmental regulations.

During the coming months, she will be expected to play a key role in reauthorization of the federal Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery act, in charting the future of the controversial Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, and in addressing the volatile issue of food safety.

Browner seems unlikely to encounter the obstacles faced by Reilly, who was constantly at odds with the White House Competitiveness Council.

Browner's first tasks will include items left pending by Congress in 1992. Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were allowed to slide last year because Congress was not anxious in an election year to engage thorny matters such as wetlands, waste recycling and the interstate transportation of garbage.

Her own priorities, she has said, will include efforts to speed the laborious regulatory process and cut down waste in the expensive Superfund program.

On a more cosmic scale, she will step into the international debate on global warming and the protection of bio-diversity--issues that brought Reilly to grief and shredded George Bush's environmental reputation before and during last summer's Earth Summit in Brazil.

The United States signed a watered down global warming treaty, and the Clinton Administration must now decide whether to support proposed protocols on forest protection and the reduction of carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

The new Administration will also be under pressure from environmentalists to sign a bio-diversity treaty, which Bush refused to join at the summit.

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