US Sugar buyout: sweet deal for the Everglades?
Removing land from cane production could help save this environmental jewel.
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The Everglades needs at least 5 million more acre feet of water capacity in order to thrive, says Kenneth Ammons, the deputy director of the state's restoration efforts.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there's the human cost of taking land out of sugar production: The possible loss of 10,711 farm-related jobs, according to a recent study by the University of Florida.
"This is unprecedented in terms of a state buyout of a private company for the purposes of conservation," says University of Florida economist Alan Hodges, who authored the study.
The proposed purchase, which could be finalized by November, addresses two interests with political clout in the Tallahassee power structure: sugar and environmentalists. Both have been challenged – sugar by globalization, and environmentalists by the slow (some say insignificant) progress of the 14-year restoration process, which was sparked by a 1988 lawsuit against the state by former US Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.
"The sugar industry in Florida has been problematic for years," says David Reiner, the president of Friends of the Everglades, an environmental group in Miami. "It's always been two-faced: The economic bonus to the state has been huge, but the ecological damage it causes has been tremendous."
To many farm families, the purchase is a sellout of a patch of Old Florida, an attack on the state's poorest, least politically powerful counties.
Not only will the tax burden fall on the 16-county South Florida Water Management District, but farmers say they're unfairly being held out as scapegoats for a statewide, even national, issue: The influx of 16 million Florida residents since 1960, bringing commercial and residential development and more challenges for water – both as a resource in terms of added pollution .
"If you want to put Florida back like it used to be, those areas should also" be reverted, he says.
Last week, Federal District Judge Federico Moreno handed Crist's plan a victory when he rejected a motion by the Everglades-dwelling Miccosukee tribe of Indians to restart construction of a $750 million reservoir. The Miccosukee say the reservoir would provide more rapid relief than the 10 years it likely would take for the US Sugar buyout to restore their water resource.
According to court testimony and local news reports, the state stalled construction on the reservoir in part because it needs the cash to finance the buyout, raising the stakes even further for the plan to work.
"If people are told, you have to readjust in the interest of the Everglades, that's noble," says Professor Weiskoff, author of "The Economics of Everglades Restoration."
"But if it's to make US Sugar wealthy and shaft the Everglades in the process, then they're right to be skeptical," he says.