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Florida Seeks to Expand Everglades from Sugar Farmland

June 25, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Florida agreed to buy almost 300 sq. miles of farmland north of the wetlands from a U.S. Sugar company for $1.75 billion. The tentative deal will expand and restore the Everglades, a key U.S. ecosystem, and relieve the sugar company from its financial bind.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: For over 50 years, there have been a variety of efforts to try and repair the Everglades in South Florida from the damage done by farming and development.

But yesterday’s announcement that the state will spend $1.7 billion to buy farmland from the U.S. Sugar Corporation would be the single biggest boost to those restoration projects.

Republican Governor Charlie Crist helped pull the deal together.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), Florida: We have an opportunity to provide the critical missing link in our restorative activities. I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida, and the people of America, as well as our planet, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration.

Thanks to U.S. Sugar Corporation, we have a strategy to acquire almost 187,000 acres of land. That’s almost 300 square miles.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Often called “the river of grass,” the Everglades are a unique ecosystem that is both wet and dry, supporting alligators, wading birds, and a myriad of other species.

Although many details are still being negotiated, the plan is to buy U.S. Sugar’s fields, railroad and refinery that are located between Lake Okeechobee and the already protected land to the south, the Big Cypress Preserve and Everglades National Park.

U.S. Sugar would be allowed to continue farming for six years to meet contract orders and labor agreements, but then operations would shut down.

The 77-year-old company grows and refines 10 percent of all sugar produced in the nation, but has recently been hurt by low-price imports.

This deal would not end all sugar production in the Everglades. Some 300,000 acres of land owned by other companies would remain in production.

Sugar farmers have long been the target of complaints from environmentalists for using polluting fertilizer and diverting much-needed water from the Everglades. Environmentalists were both pleased and surprised by yesterday’s announcement.

This land deal could allow further expansion of the 44,000 acres of marshland the state is already creating to filter and clean the water that flows from the agricultural areas to the Everglades. It also could provide reservoirs to hold water that would be used during dry seasons.

Everglades are "a magic place"

JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining us now to explain more about the efforts to restore the Everglades and this new land deal is Michael Grunwald. He's author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise." He's also a national correspondent for Time magazine.

Michael Grunwald, thank you for being with us. First of all, help us understand a little better why the Everglades are so important.

MICHAEL GRUNWALD, Author, "The Swamp": Well, for one thing, they're a magical place. They're not sort of instantly spectacular like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but they're really marvelous.

You know, you have the wading birds, the gators, the panthers. You know, it's the only place on Earth where you'll find hammerhead sharks at one end and, you know, and bears at the other. It's an amazing, unique place, and there's no other Everglades on the planet.

But it's also the focus of the largest environmental restoration project in the history of the planet, so in many ways environmentalists like to say that the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet. And I think that's true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how big a surprise was this announcement from the state of Florida that they're going to buy up all this land?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, it's a huge surprise. I mean, this has sort of been a dream of environmentalists for decades, but I don't think anybody ever really thought it would happen.

It's just a monumental change, not only to free up 187,000 acres of land that you can use for restoration instead of growing sugar, which has the problems with pollution, which likes to be wet when the Everglades likes to be dry, which likes to be dry when the Everglades likes to be wet.

Aside from that, you're also really changing the political ecosystem, because, really, the U.S. Sugar has been, for obvious reasons, because its interests were so opposed to the interests of the Everglades, it's really been one of the real obstacles for many years for really radical restoration, for really going and trying to say, "What did the Everglades used to look like? How did the water used to flow? How can we make it look like that again?"

Land to become part of ecosystem

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what exactly is the state going to do with this land once they have control of it?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I think that's not entirely clear. First, U.S. Sugar has to work out some land swaps with the other major grower in the area, Florida Crystals.

But if it does go through, the state would then own a huge swath of land right in between Lake Okeechobee and what's left of the Everglades. And in its natural state, the Everglades used to flow all the way from Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay and the 10,000 Islands.

So one option that people are talking about is the idea of creating a flow way, to sort of turn what used to be the Northern Everglades at least sort of back into Everglades again. That's kind of unlikely, because of the changes that have happened to that land through sugar farming.

What's much more likely is you'll create massive reservoirs up there that will store huge amounts of water, as well as water treatment marshes that will kind of purify that water, so that while -- you know, what's left of the Everglades at least can be used naturally again.

You'll bring that water from the top, down through the middle, and down to the bottom, the way it used to, instead of the current plans for restoration, which kind of rely on squirting water this way and that way and, if you have to, dumping it into the estuaries, where it's killing dolphins, and manatees, and creating red tides.

So it will create enormous flexibility for water managers, as they try to create sort of -- you know, only half the Everglades is left. At least that half will be able to be used naturally again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor Crist of Florida used the term the "missing link." But is it really the missing link when you still have, what, another 300,000 acres of farmland that's still going to be under agricultural production?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I think it will be about 200,000. And what's important is that those acres will no longer be directly in between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

And, you know, the problem before was that the sugar was such a gigantic swath, right in the path of the original flow, that it just became sort of politically implacable. It was a real obstacle to restoration.

Now that, you know, presumably what's left of the sugar industry will be moved off to the side, they'll have less demand for water. They'll have, you know, less demand for flood control. And they'll have less pollution, so it will be sort of a more manageable industry.

You know, it's certainly a lot better than having the entire Northern Everglades turn into condominiums, as many people had feared.

A unique win for restoration

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, I did read, Michael Grunwald, that -- this was, I think, a columnist or a column in the Miami Herald -- said that revising the existing plan to restore the Everglades and waiting the six years that's going to be necessary to take ownership, in effect, is going to delay any current restoration. Is that a significant issue here?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I suppose for some people. I've been very critical of the current restoration, in large part because it's been a political compromise. It's sort of just enough restoration that, you know, that U.S. Sugar would allow.

It was kind of the kind of restoration that would, you know, refrain from harming their interests. It was only what would be acceptable to U.S. Sugar.

Now they'll be out of business. And it really opens up a great deal of options that at least politically were not considered available before.

So, you know, you'll have six years to work out exactly what's going to happen up there. But for those of us, you know, who have seen the last eight years, where there really hasn't been a lot achieved in Everglades restoration, you know, if it takes another six years to really plan out the future, you can still take care of some of the smaller restoration projects that don't involve the sugar industry and the main flow.

But all in all, this is just, you know, a real windfall for people who care about the Everglades and the aquifers that sit underneath the Everglades that provide most of South Florida's drinking water.

A complicated deal

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is it believed that U.S. Sugar was willing to sell right now?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, it's a really interesting question. What Governor Crist told me, he thinks was a major factor, was that his administration told U.S. Sugar and the sugar industry in general that it will no longer be able to back pump its polluted run-off into Lake Okeechobee as it had been doing for so many years.

Frankly, environmentally, I think Lake Okeechobee has a lot worse problems than sugar run-off. But for the sugar industry, this created a huge dilemma, because now they can't pump it north to the lake; they can't pump it south to the Everglades. They had some real questions about what they were going to do with it.

I think they also had questions about what's going to happen when this next farm bill expires. The sugar industry has had such a sweet deal for so many years, you know, through the lucrative federal sugar program that allows them to sell sugar for really exorbitant prices.

I think, given the current state of food inflation, I think they may have had some worries about how long that gravy train was going to last. And then, as you mentioned in the earlier report, I think there were some real questions about whether the importation of cheap foreign sugar would cause problems, as well as some economic pressures from lawsuits that the industry faced over some of their turning down previous sales.

So I think there was really a kind of perfect storm that, when Governor Crist approached them and said, "Hey, maybe there's something we can do that would give you guys a lot of money and get you out of the picture," I think this started to look pretty good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, remind us what else has to happen for this to become a done deal.

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Well, I think the major obstacle right now would be that U.S. Sugar will have to work out a bunch of deals with Florida Crystals, which is the other major Everglades sugar-grower, so that U.S. Sugar will control all of the land in the Central Everglades, in the central part of the Northern Everglades, that the state is really anxious to use for restoration.

But that really should be doable, because U.S. Sugar's -- a lot of its land that it would be able to swap is really more fertile than the land that the state wants.

And, of course, U.S. Sugar will have a -- you know, it has a mill, a refinery, a bunch of railroad tracks that it's certainly not going to be using if it isn't growing sugar. So it has a lot of assets that it can use to try to make this deal go through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Michael Grunwald, helping us understand what this big story out of Florida is all about, thank you very much.

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Thanks for having me, Judy.