Vague Complaint Dooms Tribe’s Everglades Case

     (CN) – The 11th Circuit dismissed a Florida Indian tribe’s claims that the U.S. Corps of Engineers mismanages the Everglade’s water systems, periodically flooding its lands.
     Since 1948, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has operated the complex water management systems that control water levels in different parts of Florida’s Everglades.
     The northernmost part of the Everglades is an agricultural area – largely committed to sugar cane production — that is kept drained and cultivatable by a series of canals and water pumps. South of this farmland is a water conservation area of mostly marshland composed of three connected reservoirs, where water is held for release into the third and southernmost area, the Everglades National Park.
     Under the Environmental Protection Act, the Corps is also responsible for protecting the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, which requires a relatively low water level in the park during its bi-annual nesting periods.
     However, during the sparrow’s nesting times, drained water from the agricultural area floods the water conservation area, a large part of which comprises the Miccosukee Indians’ reservation land.
     In 2008, the tribe sued the Corps in federal court, alleging that its management of the Everglade’s water system after a fire in the park caused extreme flooding of tribal lands and destruction of property, in violation of the Tribe’s perpetual lease agreement.
     But the district court granted summary judgment to the Corps on all the Tribe’s claims, and the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling on appeal last week, noting that it had difficulty understanding the complaint’s allegations, calling it “a morass of vague and conclusory statements.”
     Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Gerald Tjoflat said, “The Tribe may be contending that the Corps’s activities – here, flooding tribal lands – are beyond the scope of the SFWMD’s [South Florida Water Management District] easements. In other words, the Corps is akin to a trespasser.”
     However, “these easements, which limit the Tribe’s right to use and enjoy the land, are not part of the record. Unless the terms of the easements are known, it cannot be determined whether the flooding is beyond their scope. The complaint’s allegations shed no light on what those terms might be. In sum, the complaint contains nothing – beyond a bald conclusion – to support Count I’s allegation that the Corps has an obligation to ‘protect’ and ‘not interfere with’ the Tribe’s rights,” the judge continued.
     He also dismissed the Tribe’s equal protection claim, finding the allegations “so vague and ambiguous that in order to determine whether they state a cause of action, we would have to make all sorts of assumptions,” which the court declined to do.

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