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New U.S. Interior Secretary Tours Fla. Everglades

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File photo of a person walking in the Florida Everglades. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of a person walking in the Florida Everglades. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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LOXAHATCHEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Fla. (AP) — New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took an airboat ride through Florida’s Everglades on Wednesday during one of her first official trips as leader of the agency responsible for national parks and other public lands, highlighting the importance of a massive wetlands restoration project.

Jewell is an experienced mountaineer, but she didn’t get much above sea level in an airboat cutting through the sawgrass in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County. She also planned an 8-mile hike through Everglades National Park.

Briefly stopping in a still patch of water under darkening rain clouds, Jewell said she has a lot to learn about the Everglades, particularly about invasive species, such as the Burmese python, that plague native wildlife. She defended the billions of dollars that have been directed to restoration projects, even though progress has been slow.

“If you do it right, as I think this Everglades restoration plan is doing, you’re involving all three: you’re taking care of the people, you’re taking care of the plants and animals, and you’re taking care of the resource for many generations forward,” Jewell said.

Congress approved the sweeping Everglades plan in 2000, but major components such as an $81 million bridge have languished through funding and legal challenges.

The bridge along Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County is intended to increase water flow into Everglades National Park. Jewell’s predecessor, Ken Salazar, attended the opening of one mile of the bridge in March.

The department says getting $30 million for the next 2.6 mile section of the bridge is a top priority.

Restoration projects help not just the Everglades environment, but also the job market and South Florida’s water supply, Jewell said.

“When you’ve got something as critical as the Florida Everglades and you have a need for people to get to work, what better way to get them to work than to do it in something that’s actually going to help the clean drinking water of South Florida, the tourism industry here which drives additional jobs, and actually does something good for the environment that’s going to be long-lasting,” Jewell said.

Salazar stepped down after four years as head of the agency. Jewell is the former CEO of outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. She also served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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