June 24, 2008

Florida Governor Pursues Sugar Buyout to Restore Everglades’ ‘Missing Link’

Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday announced a plan for the largest conservation land deal in Florida's history _ the purchase of 187,000 acres of farmland that will be used to restore the Everglades.

Meeting at the edge of a water treatment area in western Palm Beach County, the governor signed a "statement of principles" to guide the final negotiations of a $1.7 billion deal with U.S. Sugar.

The deal will transfer all of U.S. Sugar's property to the state over the course of at least 6 years.

The land will then be used to recreate what some call the "missing link" between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, restoring historic water flows that modern farming had cut off.

"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, or to our country than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," said Crist, on crutches from a recent knee operation as he stood on the edge of a 6,670-acre man-made filter marsh near the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Area.

U.S. Sugar representatives said they had had no plans to sell out and close down their business until being approached by the governor's administration seven months ago.

"I stand here today with mixed feelings," U.S. Sugar CEO Robert Buker said. "I am excited about what we are doing today and what it means for the future."

Details of the deal must still be finalized.

The money to pay for the deal will come from property tax dollars bonded for Everglades restoration by the South Florida Water Management District.

"What a landmark moment," said Shannon Estenoz, a district board member. "It is the missing link needed to reestablish the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades."

The deal revives a push by environmentalists to turn sugar cane fields into a "flow-way" that could carry water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, a move U.S. Sugar had long opposed and state water management officials once called unfeasible.

"This is a major part of what was once the River of Grass," said John Marshall, president of the environmental advocacy group Arthur R. Marshall Foundation. "It is such a turnaround that everybody is just amazed."

Talks began about seven months ago after the state Department of Environmental Protection started cracking down on the company's Lake Okeechobee water use.

"The company approached the state and asked for the best way to handle the situation. The governor ultimately said, 'Why not get out of the business?'" said a source close to the negotiations.

The prospect of U.S. Sugar potentially shutting down would be devastating for South Florida's sugar industry, said Barbara Miedema of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

"We are very saddened if this is true," Miedema said. "We are just reeling."

Sugar cane covers about 400,000 of the 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area, former Everglades land south of Lake Okeechobee that was drained for farming.

U.S. Sugar accounts for about 40 percent of sugar production in the area, with Florida Crystals also producing about 40 percent and a collection of smaller growers accounting for 20 percent, Miedema said.

Moving U.S. Sugar out would do away with a large agricultural water user in the Everglades Agricultural Area and open the door to re-establishing more water flow to the south.

"It is a big step forward for Everglades restoration," said Juanita Greene, conservation chairwoman for Friends of the Everglades. "We can't have water storage and cleanup without buying more land in the EAA."

The plan for the U.S. Sugar land emerges with the state in the midst of a budget crunch, which included trimming Everglades restoration funding from $200 million last year to $50 million in the newly approved budget.

The deal helps explain why U.S. Sugar joined environmental groups in lobbying the Legislature this year to keep money for the Everglades in the budget, said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

"It is amazing what happens when politically connected people change their minds about something," Draper said.


(South Florida Sun-Sentinel staff writers Peter Franceschina and Mark Hollis contributed to this report.)


(c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Visit the Sun-Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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.