Game-changer in the Everglades
Large land sale throws ecosystem-restoration plans cheerfully upside down.
Going back to the drawing board can seem like an exercise in frustration.Skip to next paragraph
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But people working to restore Florida’s legendary Everglades – by many accounts one of the most ambitious ecological overhauls ever attempted – are headed to the drafting table with extra spring in their steps. Last week, the US Sugar Corp. and the state of Florida announced that they had agreed to a statement of principles that would shut down the sugar company’s operation. In exchange, the state will buy the company’s nearly 188,000 acres of land, as well as its equipment, rail lines, and sugar mills. Negotiations over the $1.75 billion sale are expected to conclude by September.
US Sugar’s holdings cradle much of the eastern and southern shores of Lake Okeechobee and are expected to play an important role in the restoration project.
“I’ve been working on Everglades restoration for a lot of years; this is really a quantum leap forward,” says Kimberly Taplin, the senior US Army Corps of Engineers official working with the South Florida Water Management District on the project. “The opportunities and possibilities this opens up for us are huge.”
(Editor’s note: The following paragraph did not appear in earlier versions of this story.) “This is not a silver bullet,” cautions Jeff Danter, who
heads The Nature Conservancy’s Florida headquarters. Given the history of human intervention, Everglades restoration will be a long hard slog, he says. And the land deal itself leaves “a lot of details to work out, and there will be battles over those details.” These include likely land swaps
with another sugar company, Florida Crystal, as well as efforts to clean up US Sugar’s land – especially any phosphates (fertilizer) or pesticides in the soil. Still, he agrees that the deal represents a remarkable opportunity to inject new life into the Everglades restoration effort.
Over its 5,000-year history, the Everglades has come to represent an enormous natural freshwater holding tank for southern Florida, as well as a biologically rich mosaic of fresh- and saltwater ecosystems. Once spanning some 3 million acres, the vast peatland – with its saw-grass plains, tree islands, wet prairies, and ponds – is now about half its original size. Nearly 70 of its plant and animal species are listed as endangered.
Farming and flood control have drastically changed the way water flows – critical to the area’s unique characteristics. And the water is spiked with pollutants from farming and southern Florida’s rapid growth.
For a decade, federal, state, and regional agencies have worked to implement a 30-year program aimed at restoring more natural water flows to the area. And while a handful of individual projects – themselves works in progress – show promising results, the program has lost momentum, some analysts say. Among the hang-ups: The federal government has not lived up to its funding commitments. Meanwhile, the price tag has risen from a projected $8 billion in 1999 to an estimated $10.9 billion (in 2004 dollars).