By MATT SEDENSKY
LOXAHATCHEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Fla. (AP) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday that budget proposals by congressional Republicans could amount to "a death knell" for conservation programs nationwide.
Visiting the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge outside Boynton Beach, Salazar at times struck a political tone, criticizing the GOP while touting the Obama administration's Everglades restoration efforts. He said he feared a turnaround in a variety of conservation efforts because of budget cuts that "basically decimate" core programs.
"A great fear I have is that there will be a U-turn," he said.
The state and federal governments recently cleared a major hurdle in the seemingly never-ending Everglades clean-up, with a judge's approval of an $880 million plan to try filtering phosphorous from water flowing into the ecosystem. Phosphorous comes, in part, from fertilizer and promotes the growth of unhealthy vegetation that chokes native plants.
In an airboat tour of the Loxahatchee refuge, which is part of the Everglades ecosystem, Salazar got a look at the damage that pollution has done. Near the edge of swamp, invasive cattails and willows suck up nutrients and damage the food chain. About a half-mile away, though, was a glimpse of a healthy Everglades, with tall sawgrass, and thick algae below the surface, an important food source for fish.
The goal is to return all of the Everglades, a vast expanse of wetlands that is a key water source for millions, to its original state, before decades of damage from farms and development, untold pollution from fertilizers and urban runoff and the erection of dikes, dams and canals that have effectively drained much of the swamp.
"It literally turns the Everglades into something else," said Shannon Estenoz, who heads the Interior Department's initiatives in the Everglades and accompanied Salazar on his tour. "It's going to be terrific over the next several decades to see this landscape change back."
The cleanup plan backed by a federal judge last week will take an estimated 12 years to finish and Salazar acknowledged much work was left to do. But he said "we have been able to move more the last three-and-a-half years than we have, I think, in the last 20 years."
He is the second cabinet member to visit Florida in less than a week to tout the administration's efforts in the Everglades, considered an ecological jewel and often enjoying bipartisan support in the state. On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced new funding for land easements as part of restoration efforts and touted a newly compiled figure of $1.5 billion as the Obama administration's total investment in Everglades restoration.
Salazar promised the federal-state cleanup agreement is enforceable and would prevail across presidential administrations, saying "no one can walk away from it." But he still expressed worry that Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, would live up to the agreement. "I don't know whether or not he is committed to this for the long term," he said.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott, said "the governor is committed to his end of the bargain and we hope the feds are, too."
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.