June 25, 2008
Cutting Down on Sweets
By Brian Skoloff
WELLINGTON, Fla. - In one of the biggest conservation deals in U.S. history, the nation's largest producer of cane sugar reached a tentative agreement Tuesday to get out of the business and sell its nearly 300 square miles in the Everglades to the state of Florida for $1.75 billion.
The deal with U.S. Sugar Corp. results from a convergence of interests: The state is trying to restore the Everglades and clean up pollution caused by Big Sugar and other growers, while the American sugar industry is being squeezed by low-price imports.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist declared the agreement "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park, Yellowstone."
Under the deal, the state would buy U.S. Sugar's holdings in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, including its cane fields, mill and railroad line. U.S. Sugar would be allowed to farm the 187,000 acres for six more years, after which it would go out of business.
The state would then protect the land from development, which has been encroaching on the Everglades for decades.
State officials would also build a network of reservoirs and marshes to filter water flowing into the Everglades and help restore the River of Grass to a cleaner, more natural state. For generations, farming and development have blocked the natural flow of water and allowed fertilizers and other pollutants to spill into the wetlands.
Negotiations are still going on, and officials hope to sign a final agreement by September.
David Guest, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice and a longtime foe of U.S. Sugar, gloated over the announcement. "In the old days, you didn't just beat your opponent, you also ate them," he said. "Today, we're eating U.S. Sugar."
The deal would not end sugar production in the Everglades. Some 300,000 acres of land, or close to 500 square miles, used by other companies would remain in production.
"But it makes it a lot more manageable," said Ken Ammon, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing restoration efforts. "It totally changes the face of Everglades restoration. ... No one ever thought that a whole corporation like U.S. Sugar would up and potentially leave the Everglades."
Originally published by Brian Skoloff Associated Press .
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