US Sugar, Everglades deal made in Fla.

June 30, 2008 11:41:59 AM PDT
A historic conservation deal for Florida to acquire some 300 square miles of land for Everglades restoration moved forward Monday when water managers approved a negotiation process for the potential $1.75 billion purchase. The South Florida Water Management District board's approval to allow formal talks to begin with U.S. Sugar Corps was unanimous.

Gov. Charlie Crist announced last week that the state and the nation's largest producer of cane sugar were close to an agreement on turning over the land for Everglades restoration.

The deal would mean the end of U.S. Sugar's operations and the loss of 1,700 jobs.

Officials hope to have a final agreement by November. U.S. Sugar would then be allowed to continue farming for another six years.

"Today's vote is a triumphant victory for every Floridian who cares about a steady supply of clean water and a vibrant Everglades ecosystem," said Kirk Fordham, CEO of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation.

The land purchase represents an unprecedented level of agreement for Everglades restoration that has for decades pitted environmentalists against the state and Big Sugar over how to clean up the ecosystem.

Farming in the region has long been considered a hindrance to restoring natural water flow to the Everglades, blocking flow patterns and contributing pollutants and fertilizers to the ecosystem.

The water district manages all water movements in its 16-county region from Orlando to the Keys.

"There are a lot of details that need to be worked out," district board chairman Eric Buermann said. "But I think the optimism and everyone's desire to have it come to full fruition is there."

Water managers plan to use to the land to construct a network of marsh treatment areas and reservoirs to clean and store water before sending it south into the Everglades.

The district will now perform its own land appraisals and will begin official negotiations with U.S. Sugar, which pegs the value of the land at $1.75 billion.

Some from communities surrounding the town of Clewiston, where U.S. Sugar is based and operates its mill, expressed worry over the loss of jobs and the potential that their towns could be flooded.

"My house is there," Linda Johnson, a city commissioner for the nearby town of South Bay, said while pointing to a map of the land area. "There are people who have invested their lives there."

Board members assured residents there are economic incentives and training, and that no towns will be flooded.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, who consider the Everglades their ancestral homeland, have expressed worry the land deal could hinder other projects already under way, and that it might have been done hastily.

The Everglades restoration effort is the largest of its kind in the world. It is aimed at undoing or rerouting decades of flood-control projects that were built to make way for houses and farms.


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