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Will Florida's legislature decide the fate of the Everglades? (+video)

How to spend money allotted for conservation is becoming a surprisingly bipartisan issue in South Florida. Will the Everglades suffer as a result?

Last fall, voters in Florida approved Amendment 1, which designated one-third of real estate transaction taxes to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. The money would ultimately fund conservation programs. As Florida Legislature’s annual session begins this week, so does the debate over how that money will be spent.

Environmental groups such as Everglades Trust, the Everglades Foundation and the Everglades Coalition are advocating for the district and state to allocate the money to buying 46,800 acres of land from U.S. Sugar Corp.

The conservationists want to use the land to build a reservoir in the agricultural region south of Lake Okeechobee that would replenish the drying Everglades National Park. This would be one step in the multi-million-dollar Everglades restoration plan, which also includes building a filtration system to clean pollution out of water before it runs into the Everglades.

“This is not part of a wish list,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for the National Audubon Society, told the Palm Beach Post. “This is part of a must-do list.”

However, lawmakers and representatives for the sugar industry are pushing back.

Many politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott, do not think that the state should be incurring more environmentally fragile land – as it already has more than it can handle. U.S. Sugar isn't pushing for the sale anymore either. 

Instead, opponents for the purchase want the allotted conservation money to be spent on protecting springs and on municipal water and sewer projects. And as for the restoration of the Everglades, they want the state to build the reservoir on existing publicly-owned land.

“It’s time to stay the course and use [previously-purchased] land for restoration work,” Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said in a statement released Friday.

If the purchase goes through, it would be the time Florida purchased a large amount of land from U.S. Sugar Corp.

In 2010, then-governor Charlie Crist orchestrated a deal between the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Sugar to buy 26,800 acres for 26,800 acres then and to postpone buying either an addition 46,800 acres until October 2015 or all 153,200 acres of the company’s property in 2020, according to the Sun-Sentinel. But, when Scott ran for office he opposed the U.S. Sugar deal.

In order for the land to be purchased before the October deadline the divided Legislature will need to approve the money before the session ends in May. 

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