June 24, 2008

State Pursues Sugar Buyout to Aid Glades

By Curtis Morgan, The Miami Herald

Jun. 24--The state of Florida is pursuing a blockbuster buyout of the biggest chunk of Big Sugar, the powerful agricultural industry whose pollution of the Everglades has made it a target of environmentalists for decades.

Gov. Charlie Crist has scheduled a press conference Tuesday in Palm Beach County, where he's expected to outline a state proposal to purchase the U.S. Sugar Corp.'s vast holdings between Lake Okeechobee and the marshes of the Everglades -- as much as 187,000 acres, including refineries, railroads and rock mines.

The opening bid could be near $1.7 billion, though the figures could change during what promise to be lengthy and complex negotiations.

But the actual outlay of cash from a state in the grips of economic and budget crises could be significantly less, according to sources briefed on the potential deal, because U.S. Sugar would be allowed to lease the land while farming for five or six more years.

Difficult details remain unresolved, and the proposal could face political and legal hurdles, but buying such a massive swath of farm fields could recharge and would dramatically reshape the bogged-down $11.8 billion state-federal effort to restore the River of Grass.

"If this were true, this would be a bold action that would ensure the sustainability of the Everglades and its estuaries for years to come," said Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation. "The magnitude of this deal, if it is true, is breathtaking and almost hard to comprehend."

It's unclear who first proposed the deal, but two sources said the governor apparently floated it to sugar executives who'd expressed frustration over numerous lawsuits and increasingly expensive regulations.

The governor's office provided no details Monday night. Crist spokeswoman Eric Isaac would only say, "We look forward to making an announcement on the Everglades tomorrow." Judy Sanchez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar, the nation's largest sugar grower, also declined to comment.

Eric Buermann, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, which would have to approve a plan to pay for the land from property taxes it already collects, did not return calls.

But a half-dozen sources who were briefed on the negotiations confirmed to The Miami Herald its basics, first reported Monday online by The Palm Beach Post. The sources cautioned that important specifics of the deal, quietly under negotiation since fall, remain unresolved.

The state has used such lease-backs in the past. But the new proposal has some unknown quantities -- at least at this point. Among them: land prices, which could range from $10,000 to $15,000 an acre, and the extent of U.S. Sugar's holdings that the state may ultimately target.

The deal wouldn't end sugar farming in the 400,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, which covers several counties southeast of Lake Okeechobee and is the heart of the state's multibillion-dollar sugar industry. But the state may seek land swaps with Florida Crystals, and dozens of smaller growers, to create a large state-owned tract. Other growers did not return calls Monday night.

None of the sources would speak on the record, saying the Crist administration urged them not to discuss the deal before Tuesday's scheduled press conference at one of the huge treatment marshes the state has built to cleanse chemicals from farm runoff that flows into the Everglades. Farm nutrients, particularly phosphorous, can damage sensitive natural plants and alter the entire biological chain of the Everglades.

The state has spent more than $1.2 billion to build some 44,000 acres of the marshes. But despite sharp reductions in pollution by the industry, water flowing from the treatment areas can be up to five times above the super-low phosphorous standards set to protect the Everglades.

A land buy might raise environmentalists' hopes of creating some sort of 'flow-way' that would allow Lake Okeechobee to spill south into the remaining marshes of the Everglades. But that idea, which is opposed by water managers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, remains unlikely. For one thing, even with a farmland buy, some rural communities still line the lake.

"There has been a long desire by many people to get some sort of link back between the lake and the Everglades," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Nonetheless, converting the former sugar fields into more and larger pollution treatment marshes and reservoirs could make it easier for water managers to answer major concerns about both water quality and quantity that have dogged Everglades restoration.

Since Congress approved the ambitious effort in 2000, the project has slipped years behind schedule and well over its cost projections, amid flagging political support and shrinking state and federal budgets. In proposing the land buy, Crist is following the lead of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who in 2004 committed $1.5 billion of state money for eight key projects to try to kick-start the stalled restoration.

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.


To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.