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Deal could restore the Everglades

Times Staff Writer

. -- It was a strategy so bold no environmentalist or state bureaucrat dared dream it could happen: Buy out Big Sugar’s polluted fields, railroad and refinery within the Everglades so the wounded “river of grass” could heal after more than a century of man’s industrial intrusions.

But bureaucrats and activists alike watched in giddy wonder Tuesday as Gov. Charlie Crist and the head of U.S. Sugar Corp. announced a deal in which the state will pay $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres obstructing the natural path of the treasured Everglades.

One of the largest environmental acquisitions in U.S. history, the buyout of U.S. Sugar’s agricultural and industrial lands between Lake Okeechobee -- the heart of the unique ecosystem -- and the protected territory leading to the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico should allow the land to revert to marshes and waterways soon after sugar operations cease.

U.S. Sugar will continue to lease the land back from the state for the next six years to fulfill contract orders and labor commitments, U.S. Sugar Chief Executive Robert H. Buker Jr. said.

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He declined to say why U.S. Sugar was bowing out now when worldwide prices for the commodity are rising, but a recent federal court ruling faulted the company’s practice of pumping dirty water back into Lake Okeechobee.

Elated players in the 50-year-old campaign to protect what remains of the fabled Everglades celebrated the news and pledged to unite the long-fractious interests of industry and preservation to take advantage of the opportunity they deemed unimaginable only a few months ago.

The deal, Crist said, had been quietly in the works for the last seven months.

Negotiations on the exact price for land tracts begin July 1 and should be concluded within 75 days, said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state’s broker in the deal.

“The significance of this cannot be overstated,” said Everglades Foundation senior scientist Tom Van Lent, shaking his head in disbelief at the unexpected breakthrough in the national conservation group’s decades-long effort to save the natural resource.

Foundation chief Kirk Fordham praised the agreement as “an achievement of breathtaking significance and priceless value.”

Crist, reveling in the afterglow of an environmental milestone of his doing, said the deal was “as monumental as the creation of our nation’s first national park, Yellowstone.”

“I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, or to our country, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration,” he said.

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Even Buker described the acquisition and his company’s role in it as something never before seriously considered.

“This is a watershed event in national conservation history and a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida, one that would have been inconceivable in years past. Yet here we are,” Buker said just before signing the agreement of principles.

Buker said he was “sobered and not just a little bit saddened” by the prospect of putting his 80-year-old privately held company out of business and its 1,700-plus employees out of their traditional work.

Backers of the environmental rescue package, though, said the lost sugar jobs would be absorbed by other cane growers and millers in the state, as well as by an expected surge in construction work and even eco-tourism, once the Everglades recover their original splendor.

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Earth’s greatest subtropical swamp -- really a shallow river only inches deep but up to 50 miles wide -- the Everglades have suffered since white settlers first came to Florida in the 1890s and began dredging and planting the rich, swampy soil south of Lake Okeechobee.

Once spanning 4,000 square miles, the Everglades now cover less than half that, hemmed in by housing development, rock mining operations and farms. Only about 10% of the region’s original 2 million wading birds survive, and the ecosystem is now home to 67 threatened or endangered species.

“Restoring the health of the Everglades is not only vital to our environment, but our economy and quality of life here in South Florida,” said John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Assn.

Crist presided over a ceremonial sealing of the deal in 90-degree heat atop a levee overlooking a steamy, bug-buzzed canal of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

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The tanned, 51-year-old governor, rumored to be a potential running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, had enjoyed phenomenal and bipartisan approval ratings until last week, when he pledged support for McCain’s proposal to open up offshore oil drilling, including off the coasts of Florida and California.

Most politicians in Florida oppose oil exploration for fear it could harm the state’s pristine beaches. The surprise Everglades deal was a stunning comeback for the governor among environmentalists, who lavished praise for his vision and pursuit of the landmark purchase.

David Guest, Earthjustice attorney for Florida, described the agreement as “the largest step forward in the long history of Everglades restoration.”

He attributed the breakthrough, at least in part, to his group’s victory in getting the water management district to prohibit U.S. Sugar from “back-pumping” polluted waters into Lake Okeechobee. Earthjustice, representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, succeeded in convincing a federal judge last year that the practice violated the Clean Water Act.

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Guest said the positive effects of the deal would be immediate and that dramatic recovery of the land could be expected “within a handful of years” once the damaging influences of polluted runoff and canal dredging ceased.

“This is a really big deal and people just need to keep their nerve and not let it slip away,” Guest said. “For generations to come, people will say that this is the day that restoration of the Everglades began.”

As sugar cane farming and milling wind down, phosphate-laden runoff will gradually be eliminated, allowing water managers to store excess rainfall in wet years and release it during droughts. That will protect the fragile coastal estuaries from damaging freshwater flows that until now couldn’t be captured and redirected because the sugar operations were in the way.

State and federal authorities drafted an $8-billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan a decade ago designed primarily to capture and store more water to distribute to farmers, municipalities and the Everglades through a complex system of canals, dams, pumps and reservoirs.

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Many of those projects should be unnecessary if the state acquires the U.S. Sugar land and simply allows nature to take its course with minimal human tweaking, said water management chief Wehle.

The acquisition will be financed with $50 million in cash from the water management district coffers and $1.7 billion from “certificates of participation,” similar to bonds, to be sold at public auction, said Wehle. No new taxes will be necessary for the purchase, officials said.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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