IN a satellite photo of the Loxahatchee Refuge in the Everglades, a yellow stain is spreading from sugar fields on its edges into its still-green heart.
From an airboat, one sees that it is a wall of cattails that have driven away wildlife and are eating away at America's most-endangered national park. Beyond the cattails, one roars over open spaces of marsh edged with saw grass. Hundreds of ibis startled by the boat rise in fluttering white clouds from their nests on tiny islands.
Wildlife biologist Su Jewell explains what the cattails, covering 20,000 acres and spreading four more a day, do to the Everglades: "Where they are thick, no wildlife can penetrate, and no sunlight reaches the aquatic vegetation."
The manager of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Loxahatchee Refuge, Burkett Neely, says the 450,000 acres of sugar fields to the west and north are causing the Everglades's death from runoff of phosphorus from fertilizer residue.
"Scientists agree that phosphorus is the No. 1 problem," he said. "Nutrients in a system that is historically nutrient-poor cause a change - it eliminates the marsh character." The Everglades's traditional cover of saw grass grows only on ridges where water is shallow, leaving open spaces where alligators and birds feed and spawn and where algae is nourished by sunlight. But cattails spread thick everywhere, blocking off wildlife and killing life-sustaining algae.
The 145,000-acre wildlife refuge is the first protected area of the Glades, a 50-mile-wide "River of Grass" flowing from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, 115 miles to the south.
The $1 billion-a-year sugar industry, dominated by two companies, Flo-Sun and U.S. Sugar, denies responsibility for damage and has filed 25 to 30 lawsuits over five years to block a plan to reduce chemical runoff.
"It's not true that cattails are caused by phosphorus - it's because of flooding," says Peter Rosendahl, a Flo-Sun spokesman. The US government subsidizes the industry by buying domestic sugar at about three times world market prices.
In Florida, sugar's clout has been enormous. In the 10 years since then-Gov. Bob Graham (D) launched his Save Our Everglades campaign, little has changed. Developers and farmers still fight in the courts and the all-powerful South Florida Water Management District against efforts to give the Everglades a more constant, abundant flow of clean water.
Environmentalists, long stymied by the industry's power in Florida, have been buoyed up since Al Gore Jr. became vice president and former state environment chief Carol Browner became Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head.
But if sugar's clout is strong enough, the pledge to clean up the Everglades may end up on the back burner.
Despite backing from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a deadline to agree on the $450 million plan to save the Glades passed June 21 when talks "bogged down" over who would pay, a Justice Department source said. Now the sugar industry and farmers are expected to resume lawsuits to block the plan. But the source said talks are ongoing among farmers, sugar producers, the state, American Indians, Army Corps of Engineers, US Departments of Agriculture and Interior, and the EPA.
Today, about half the Everglades's 4 million acres remain covered with water. The rest was drained in the 1920s by 1,400 miles of canals to provide urban land and farms. Ninety percent of the huge bird flocks are gone. But alligators, under protection of the Endangered Species Act, number more than 1 million. The Florida panther is nearly extinct, but deer, garfish, snails, bugs, and other creatures endure.
The remaining Everglades are threatened by more than cattails. Farmers in the southeast suck up water in a drought and drown it during rains to keep crops dry. These changes can flood bird and alligator nests, or leave them dry and vulnerable to predators.
The diversion of fresh water into the ocean through canals that fence in the Glades is blamed for a massive algae bloom and a 25-mile dead zone spreading 1-1/2 miles a year in the Florida Bay. Algae has already reached the only coral reefs in the continental US, along the Florida Keys.
Mysterious releases of mercury have also affected the Glades, and signs at the refuge advise visitors to limit or stop eating its fish.
Since February, when Mr. Babbitt waded into the conflict, the two sugar companies have agreed to help clean up water flowing into the Everglades.
In an address in Tallahassee, Mr. Babbitt called the Glades "an imperiled ecosystem on the brink of collapse." Repairing it would be a "test case for all ecosystems in the entire country," he said.
But sugar companies are dragging their feet over paying the cost of setting aside 35,000 acres as filtering marshlands and reducing phosphates from some 175 parts per billion to 50 by 1997.
U.S. Sugar president J. Nelson Fairbanks says much of the phosphates are already in water entering sugar fields from Lake Okeechobee or from underground seepage, a theory the refuge director disputes. Mr. Fairbanks says his industry should pay for phosphorus it adds, and the federal government pay the rest. He also said the US Corps of Engineers built the water-control systems and "created the major share of the Everglades problem and should accept most of the government responsibility for fixing it. All
Donald Carson, Flo-Sun executive vice president, said it would cost $4 billion to stop freshwater from flowing into the ocean.
The Everglades debate mirrors one over the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl. In both cases, industry warns that jobs would be lost and the international trade deficit affected if production halts to protect the environment.
And the debate over the use of private land adjacent to the park and refuge mirrors that over international conservation. In Madagascar, India, and Thailand, environmentalists found that to save lemurs, tigers, and gibbons in national parks, they had to help farmers earn a living without resorting to forest and animal destruction. Now the debate has come to the country that created the first national park.