June 24, 2008

Florida Purchases Huge Piece of the Everglades

In an effort to save precious wildlife habitat, the state of Florida announced plans Tuesday to buy a large piece of the Everglades from U.S. Sugar Corp.

The South Florida Water Management District said the purchase comes with a  $1.75 billion price tag - $50 million cash and $1.7 billion in certificates of participation, similar to bonds.

U.S. Sugar Corp. officials say, despite being one of the largest privately held U.S. agriculture firms, the company will go out of business in six years. U.S. Sugar Corp. plans to hand 187,000 acres of farmland over to the state's efforts to restore the Everglades.

Environmentalists are lauding the move as the "missing link" in the restoration project. They have criticized the sugar industry for decades for dumping fertilizer-laced water in Florida's famous "River of Grass".

Officials say the land deal would revive an effort to return sugar cane fields back into marshes and waterways. Environmentalists believe this would help cleanse polluted Everglades water and carry it from Lake Okeechobee to the southern reaches of the Everglades and Florida Bay.

"It's spectacular. I don't think any of us could have fathomed it," said Kirk Fordham of the Everglades Foundation. "We really are entering a new chapter in the history of the Everglades."

The deal exists only as a signed statement of principles now. It calls for Florida to buy U.S. Sugar Corp., including the land, its sugar mill and refinery, its citrus orchards and processing plan. State and company officials estimate it will take 75 days to wrap up the details.

Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, currently considered as a possible running mate for presidential hopeful John McCain, announced the plan at a news conference. The meeting took place at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, with sugar cane fields and Everglade marshes filling the background.

"It is as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park, Yellowstone," Crist said. "This represents, if we're successful and I believe we will be, the largest conservation purchase in the history of the state of Florida."

The Everglades wetlands include a shallow, meandering river as little as 6 inches deep and a vast sawgrass prairie with marshes, pine forests and mangrove islands.

The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Researchers say it is home to rare and endangered species like the American crocodile and the Florida panther.

Development and agriculture have claimed more than 35 percent of the original wetlands; the rest has been starved of water due to the irrigation needs of sugar plantations, vegetable farms and citrus fields.

Government progress has been painstakingly slow on the $7.8 billion plan to restore the everglades. Discussions have been underway since 2000.

Longtime campaigner for Everglades restoration Mary Barley, said the importance of the U.S. Sugar land to the effort could not be overstated.

"If Lake Okeechobee is the heart, this piece of land is all the veins and arteries that are going out to all of the estuaries and water supply in south Florida," she said. "Without this component, it was never going to work."

The deal would be paid from tax revenue according to the South Florida Water Management District.

"We are not increasing our tax rate to do this," district executive director Carol Wehle said. "We are making this work within our existing ad valorem and budget structure."

The deal will suffer a blow to the local economy -1,800 employees will be out of jobs. The U.S. Sugar Corp. has farmed the Everglades for nearly 80 years and produces 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year. 

Sugar Corp. Chief Executive Robert Buker said, "Our business will be done in six years."