US Sugar buyout: sweet deal for the Everglades?

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

Joe Skipper
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.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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.

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.

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.

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 .

"They removed the mangroves, filled in the swamplands, and inhabited the barrier islands," says Butch Jones, a Glades County commissioner.

"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.

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