Nat, thank you for your kind introduction. Few individuals have worked as tirelessly or as long as you to preserve our natural and cultural resources. I am pleased that you are down here keeping a vigilant watch over the Everglades, which are one of the world's most treasured and iconic landscapes.
This is my third trip to the Everglades as Secretary of the Interior. I have experienced its great expanse of sawgrass prairies and tree islands - what the Native Americans refer to as "grassy water" - that extend for miles under endless sky.
I celebrated with many of you last year when we broke ground on the one-mile bridge in the Tamiami Trail, the first step of many so that water can flow unimpeded once again through the famed River of Grass.
And at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge I marveled at the fact that the 150 million acres that now comprise the National Wildlife Refuge System started here in Florida on a small island used by nesting wading birds.
So it is a real honor for me to be here tonight to speak at the 26th annual conference of the Everglades Coalition. This conference allows us to celebrate and reflect both upon the progress we are making to restore the Everglades and our ambitious agenda for the years ahead.
I congratulate the Coalition on the work you have undertaken over many years and the voice you give to restoration. The work underway here is a model to other large landscape level restoration efforts around the country.
When President Obama asked me to become the Secretary of the Interior, he asked that I serve as custodian of America's cultural heritage and its natural resources.
This far-reaching and awesome responsibility is especially important in the Florida Everglades.
With four national parks, 16 national wildlife refuges and 67 threatened and endangered species - all of which depend upon a healthy Everglades - the Department of Interior has a huge stake in a successful restoration of the Everglades.
Everglades restoration, of course, is not just about the environment, but about the long-term economic health of South Florida.
As a recent economic report noted, every dollar invested in the Everglades yields four dollars of economic benefits for the commercial and recreational fisheries, agriculture, tourism, real estate and other economic sectors of the South Florida economy.
For example, the massive Everglades construction projects to reverse decades of damage not only produce jobs but also drive the long-term environmental and economic health of this ecosystem where everything depends upon plentiful supplies of clean, fresh water.
America's Great Outdoors and the Everglades
Last spring, I joined President Obama at the Department of the Interior where he unveiled his America's Great Outdoors Initiative, a comprehensive effort to establish a conservation agenda for the 21st Century.
The restoration of the Everglades stands as a model of what the President is seeking to achieve nationwide through this initiative.
After holding 51 listening sessions across the county, including one here in the Kissimmee River Valley, which is the headwaters of the Everglades, and receiving more than 100,000 citizen comments and ideas, we are now very close to releasing a report to the President.
Some of the lessons learned from the Everglades are underscored in this report, including:
* A renewed commitment to work with state and local governments, NGOs, businesses, and private citizens to support their good ideas and programs and be a full and effective partner in conservation;
* Expanding great urban parks and community green space;
* Conserving large, rural landscapes;
* Restoring and increasing access to rivers, lakes and streams;
* Conserving, restoring and better managing our public lands;
* And engaging our youth in the outdoors.
In short, America's Great Outdoors is taking the principles of conservation and stakeholder involvement that are working here in the Everglades and expanding them nationwide.
During the next few minutes, I would like to reflect on what we are accomplishing here in the Everglades and to offer some thoughts on what needs to be done as we move ahead.
First, I would like to acknowledge the terrific leaders in the Obama Administration who are major contributors to this effort.
You heard earlier today from the Army's top official for the environment, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo Ellen Darcy. Jo Ellen, along with her principal deputy, Rock Salt, are two of Washington's strongest leaders and advocates for the Everglades.
I'm pleased that Bob Perciasepe, the Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is here tonight. EPA is a vigilant protector of water quality and its efforts are instrumental to achieving clean water for the Everglades.
Shannon Estenoz is now part of my Interior Dream Team and will work closely with our managers and scientists and lead Interior's efforts in Florida.
I also want to thank Don Jodrey from my staff in Washington who is with me here tonight and has served this effort very well over many years.
My chief of staff, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland is my lead person on the Everglades and a strong advocate within the Administration. Tom spoke to you last year and would be here tonight but is off doing work on the Gulf Coast to get that restoration effort underway.
Of course, the federal family is just part of a team and we at Interior know the great talent and commitment of our State partners in this effort, especially Eric Buermann, the Chairman of the Governing Board for the South Florida Water Management District. Many of Eric's colleagues on the Governing Board are here as well, and I want to express my appreciation for your leadership and for your historic vote to secure 28,000 acres of lands from the U.S. Sugar Corporation which will contribute greatly to our efforts to improve water quality.
The Obama Administration's Restoration Accomplishments:
When I joined the Administration two years ago, the thing I heard most often was that Everglades restoration was stalled. It was, as some have said recently, a river of morass.
We set about to fix that -- and quickly. We increased federal construction funding by more than $660 million during the last two years so that we could break ground and begin work on five key projects, including the Tamiami Trail, in the last twelve months.
These projects will restore more natural water flow, restore important habitat across hundreds of thousands of acres of lands, and provide billions of gallons of drinking water for urban residents.
We also increased our focus on invasive species which threaten the unique flora and fauna of the Everglades. Our number one enemy last year was the Burmese Python, which has no natural predators and poses a great threat to wildlife in the Everglades. Last year I traveled to New York City and JFK Airport to announce an important rule change pursuant to the Lacey Act. Our proposal would ban the importation and interstate commerce of the Burmese pythons and other large constrictor snakes. This act would shut off the source of supply and allow us to focus on eradication.
In addition, we made sure that world attention remains on the health of Everglades National Park by proposing that the World Heritage Committee relist Everglades National Park on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. This occurred last summer. We will put in place specific performance measures and goals to ensure that Everglades National Park is not removed before actual restoration work is accomplished.
And in recognition of the reality of climate change, Interior is establishing Climate Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to integrate science and management for climate change and adaptation.
Our partner federal agencies have done their part as well. The Agriculture Department issued its largest wetlands reserve grant in history this past summer with $88 million targeting land conservation in the Fisheating Creek Basin, which is west and north of Lake Okeechobee and will restore and preserve the natural water filtration for flows into Lake Okeechobee.
We recognize that the quality of the water entering the Everglades is not where it needs to be. We worked closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a science-based plan for water quality improvements which reflects the State's purchase of 28,000 acres of the U.S. Sugar Corporation lands as a critical first step to expanded storm water treatment areas.
Although much of the work related to water quality is tied up in litigation, we have a shared interest to work with the State to achieve clean water. We must look critically at our own legal authorities and funding strategies to ensure that hydrologic restoration and water quality improvement moves forward at the same time.
And finally, just last month, I issued my recommendation to Congress to undertake an additional 5.5 miles of bridging on the Tamiami Trail above and beyond the 1-mile bridge now under construction. When combined with other planned work in the Everglades Agricultural Area and water conservation areas, this project will restore 100 percent of historic water quantity and flow to Everglades National Park.
Everglades Restoration - The Vision for the Work Ahead:
But there is no doubt that we have much more work to do.
As we develop the vision for the work ahead, I believe this is a unique moment when we can take advantage of emerging opportunities, and the new science we have developed during the last decade to move Everglades restoration significantly forward.
First, we need to work with the new Congress to authorize and fund the additional 5.5 miles of bridging in the Tamiami Trail. This project alone sets the stage for all of the work we are doing to expand water quality storage and treatment and to remove what is essentially a dam and realize restored historic flow. It will be one of my highest priorities as Secretary and I intend to work with the new Congress until it is done.
Next, we need to work closely with the State to restore the flow through the Everglades. Building on the great work that was done in the planning process that led to the acquisition of the U.S. Sugar lands, we need to use the new science that is now available that shows that the Everglades was wetter than we originally thought. The planning effort that we undertake jointly with the State will identify how best to put the "River" back into the "River of Grass," trading the artificial impoundments with their excessive water depths for the more natural process of flow through the Everglades.
Third, we need to consider the potential opportunities afforded by the purchase options that the State holds with U.S. Sugar for additional land acquisition in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The State's initial purchase is very significant. However, the probability exists that more land will be needed in the future to meet the storage and treatment needs of the Everglades and the coastal estuaries. I pledge to work closely with the State and stakeholders to explore those options.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan kept the Everglades too segregated and impounded and relied upon more complicated and expensive engineering to store water underground. We know now, given this new opportunity to acquire land, and our new science, that we can have a less engineered, and more technically feasible solution by acquiring additional land for water storage and treatment instead.
Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative
Everglades restoration, however, goes beyond the water quantity and quality improvements contemplated by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to encompass other projects throughout the greater Everglades ecosystem.
An emerging area of focus that I am extremely excited about as Secretary is the collaborative conservation effort unfolding in the Kissimmee River valley, the headwaters of the Everglades. There, the Fish and Wildlife Service, working in collaboration with state and other federal agencies, non-governmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Refuge Association and The Nature Conservancy, ranchers and other landowners, has developed the Greater Everglades Partnership Initiative.
This initiative is aimed at preserving a rural working ranch landscape to protect and restore one of the great grassland and savanna landscapes of eastern North America. The partnerships being formed would protect and improve water quality north of Lake Okeechobee, restore wetlands, and connect existing conservation lands and important wildlife corridors to support the Everglades restoration effort.
Our vision for this initiative includes a proposal for a new 150,000-acre refuge, the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. We will take multiple approaches to land protection, including conservation easements, leases, land-owner assistance grants and agreements and core protected areas. We are conducting a preliminary study effort with federal, state, Tribal and local governments and non-governmental organizations, land owners and the public.
This initiative will be rooted in partnership with the local communities from start to finish and we will be holding public workshops throughout the spring of this year on a draft land protection plan, with our goal of developing a final plan later this year.
Just today I met with some of the partners and private land owners who are involved in this effort and I am encouraged by their ideas and their creativity that they bring to this significant conservation effort. I encourage all of you to participate. We welcome fresh ideas and 21st century approaches to conservation.
Last year, during one of my trips to the Everglades, I visited Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first wildlife refuge set aside in the United States, which is now part of a refuge system encompassing more than 150 million acres.
I walked over a boardwalk that has planks for each wildlife refuge in the county and I challenged my dear friend, the late Sam Hamilton who was the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service at the time, to ramp up our collaborative conservation efforts.
Unfortunately Sam is no longer with us, but his leadership and vision is long-lasting and lives on. The Fish and Wildlife Service has taken up the cause in Florida to look at areas, like the Everglades Headwaters, that can be preserved through collaborative conservation.
During his all too brief tenure as the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Sam Hamilton was a steady voice in my ear about the importance of America's Everglades. His knowledge and love of this ecosystem was a source of inspiration to me. When I made my first visit to the Everglades as Secretary I was amazed to find Sam's inspiration replicated in hundreds of people: scientists, policy makers, planners and activists who have made the restoration of the Everglades their mission, their contribution to the world.
I embrace this mission and pledge myself and the United States Department of the Interior to its success. This is the largest ecosystem restoration effort in the world, and although no one else has ever been this ambitious, as I look out at this audience and consider how far we have come, I know that working together we are up to the task.
Thank you again for inviting me to be with you tonight and I look forward to the opportunity to come back again.