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US Sugar buyout: sweet deal for the Everglades?

Removing land from cane production could help save this environmental jewel.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2008

Sign here: US Sugar Corp. CEO Robert Bucher and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (both not shown) signed an agreement to sell nearly 300 square miles to the state. Florida Crystals Corp. operations where some land may be swapped as part of the deal.

Joe Skipper

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Banged out in secret meetings, a $1.75 billion taxpayer-funded plan to buy 187,000 acres of US Sugar's cane fields in the Lake Okeechobee basin marks one of the largest conservation buyouts of a major industry in the US, promising to break a major chokehold on the slowly dying Everglades.

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But will it really work – and at what cost?

Those are the tough questions facing Floridians from Cracker families of the lake plains to suburbanites in Palm Beach. In a state usually more generous toward sun-seekers than swamp falcons, the buyout reflects a major change of political direction on behalf of the state's fragile backwaters.

What's more, the implications of the US Sugar deal could go far beyond the Sunshine State, offering a new Republican vision for downsizing polluting industries in a globalized economy while reducing – in Big Sugar's case – $2 billion in annual subsidies from Uncle Sam.

But University of Miami economist Richard Weiskoff warns that the buyout could turn out to be a backroom deal among political and industrial interests that fails to deliver salvation for one of the world's wildest and most important ecosystems.

"This was a great opportunity for US Sugar to get out of the business and give a potentially big boost to [Republican Gov.] Charlie Crist and the Republicans on the environment," says Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

But it also seems like such a sweetheart deal, he says, that critics of the deal could be blinded to the potential for cleaning up the Everglades.

Two months after a June 24 announcement that shocked Floridians, the deal is now coming into sharp relief.

The main players include Governor Crist, who is aiming for an environmental legacy that could help his GOP vice-presidential bid; a powerful sugar corporation looking for financial liquidity in a tight global sugar market – perhaps to finance entry into new businesses; a necklace of poor farm communities with few new opportunities; and powerful environmental groups with growing clout in Tallahassee.

Though technically separate from the US Army Corps of Engineers' $7 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the purchase of the so-called Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) lands would provide a significant boost to a sluggish restoration effort.

Taking huge chunks of cane country out of agricultural use would not only reduce the amount of damaging fertilizers, but could also provide up to 1 million acre feet of water needed to manage in- and out-flows to the dying fringes of the River of Grass.