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The state of Florida and the nation's biggest sugar grower Tuesday unveiled the details of what would become the largest environmental acquisition in state history, a $1.7 billion buyout of 187,000 acres of farmland that Gov. Charlie Crist called the ''missing link'' in the stalled effort to restore the Everglades.
Under the proposal, expected to take 75 days to finalize, U.S. Sugar Corp. would sell some 300 square miles along with two massive refineries, 200 miles of railroad and other assets to the South Florida Water Management District.
The company would then continue farming for six years under a lease with the state before ending operations. The district hopes to swap some of the company's holdings with those of other sugar growers, opening a massive swath south of Lake Okeechobee to construct reservoirs and pollution cleanup marshes that would resolve two of the restoration effort's biggest problems -- the water is still too polluted and there isn't enough of it to restore the natural flow of the River of Grass.
Bob Buker, president of U.S. Sugar, said he was saddened at the thought of a deal that would effectively end his company's long history of farming in the Everglades, but also heartened that it could resolve some of the state's most serious environment issues.
''This is a watershed event in national conservation history and a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida,'' Buker said.
Environmentalists hailed the proposal as a landmark. Sugar companies and environmental groups have been locked in disputes for decades.\n\n''This has been the holy grail,'' said Mark Kraus, senior vice president of the Everglades Foundation,. ``I really wouldn't have believed I would see this in my lifetime.''\n\nTo pay for the deal, the district intends to redirect money intended for other Everglades construction projects. District leaders have not yet sorted through details of how that reshuffle would occur.
$1.75 billion deal to buy the U.S. Sugar Corporation, including 187,000 acres of farmland that once sat in the northern Everglades. If the deal goes through, it will extinguish a powerful 77-year-old company with 1,700 employees and deep roots in South Florida's coal-black organic soil.
resurrect and reconfigure a moribund 8-year-old Everglades replumbing effort that is supposed to be the most ambitious ecosystem restoration project in the history of the planet.\n\n"It's mind-blowing," said Kirk Fordham, the executive director of the Everglades Foundation, before the announcement was made. "Who would have thought we'd see this in our lifetimes?"
The purchase would give the state control of nearly half the 400,000 acres of sugar fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area below Lake Okeechobee
Environmentalists hope that eventually, the area will become storage reservoirs, treatment marshes and perhaps even a flowway reconnecting the lake to the Glades. This could help recreate the original north-to-south movement of the "River of Grass", and eliminate damaging pulses of excess water into coastal estuaries. That would be good news for panthers and gators, dolphins and herons, ghost orchids and royal palms.
Crist has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Senator John McCain, and they both took a lot of flak in Florida last week when they dropped their opposition to offshore drilling. But Crist has been true to his pledge to be "the Everglades governor," replacing many of Jeb Bush's industry-friendly aides with eco-friendly appointees, blocking the Legislature's efforts to eliminate funding for restoration, and stopping the sugar industry from pumping polluted runoff into the lake.
Florida Crystals, the agribusiness controlled by the well-wired Fanjul family, would be all that's left of Big Sugar. Founded by General Motors executive Charles Stuart Mott in the Everglades back in 1931, U.S. Sugar currently produces 9% of America's sugar — thanks to a massive federal water-control project that its executives helped design, and a lucrative federal sugar program that artificially boosts its prices.