NEARLY 50 years after the US Army Corps of Engineers began digging a mammoth canal system through the Florida Everglades, the Clinton administration has unleashed an equally ambitious plan to return the vast swamp to a more natural state. But sugar producers say it could sink their industry.
Under the plan, which has a federal price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars, the government would purchase 100,000 acres of farmland and convert it back to marsh, fund cleanup efforts already under way, and dismantle some of the canals and dams crisscrossing southern Florida.
The project, hailed as one of the most ambitious ecological efforts ever undertaken, highlights the increasing political importance the Clinton administration gives to environmental issues and the state of Florida in the president's reelection bid.
Environmentalists have been pushing for greater Everglades protection for years. The federal government already spends about $100 million annually. Now the administration proposes to spend an additional $700 million over the next seven years. It also plans to force sugar growers to contribute by levying a 1-cent tax on each pound of sugar produced. Environmentalists blame the sugar industry for polluting the Everglades with fertilizer-laced water that runs off the fields.
"This is a watershed decision for the administration which has in the past been reluctant to challenge the sugar industry over this issue," says Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society.
The administration says immediate action to preserve the Everglades is crucial not only to help rebuild its fragile ecology but also to maintain the economy of the Sunshine State. The Everglades is "part of the infrastructure supporting Florida's economy," including the $13 billion-a-year tourism industry, said Vice President Al Gore. The region is also the main source of water for 5 million Floridians, a number that is expected to double over the next two decades.
The administration's proposal aims to undo the system the Army Corps of Engineers created in the 1950s when it drained the land for farming. Before the Corps tinkered with the land, the area was a river of grass. Water flowed south from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and then filtered through the wetlands to Florida Bay. Now those wetlands are a 700,000-acre agricultural area with levees and canals that divert the water to the Atlantic and get clogged with agricultural runoff. The land needs to be returned to marsh to restore a more natural and cleaner flow of water, scientists say.
While the proposal is backed by many Florida residents, sugar and other produce farmers oppose the initiative.
The tax "is designed to shut down this industry, which is what [environmentalists] have been calling for for several years," says Robert Buker, vice president of US Sugar, the biggest sugar producer in Florida. "It'll put 40,000 Floridians out of work."
Growers say that if they have to pay any more for environmental cleanup, they will be forced to fold. Under a 1994 state law, sugar producers are already required to pay up to $320 million over the next two decades for restoration projects.
Conservationists dismiss such predictions of a sugar industry meltdown as a scare tactic.
"The bottom line is that if this industry has to destroy the south Florida environment to survive, then it should pack up and go to Wisconsin," says Dexter Lehtinen, a lawyer for the Miccosukee Tribe, whose reservation is located on the northern edge of the Everglades National Park.
Some in the tribe say the Clinton plan is too little, too late. The tribe's tradition of hunting for food has been undermined by high levels of mercury detected in fish and birds.
The administration's funding plan has some bipartisan support but will face stiff resistance in Congress; Florida's senators oppose it. And some experts caution that "the Everglades are a far cry from what we tried to preserve at the turn of the century, and the structure has changed with exotic species coming in ... and massive loading of nutrients into the area," says Tom Crisman at the University of Florida, Gainesville.