Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Everglades Sugar: The Die is Cast


Today $194,234,087.08 will be electronically transferred from the South Florida Water Management District to the U.S. Sugar Corporation. And that push of a button will begin the actual restoration of the Everglades. Today marks the beginning of the transfer of the critical Everglades headwaters known as the Everglades Agricultural Area from private to public ownership. Before the passage of the now estimated $15 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Act of 2000, Sierra Club and its allies advised government officials to buy sugar land instead of pouring billions of dollars into unsafe underground water storage wells and giant lined mining pits. The way to heal the Everglades, we wrote to the Clinton Administration in 1999, was not to be found in more mechanical, heavily-manipulated water schemes that little resembled anything nature could devise. Indeed, the only way to put the once mighty Everglades back together was to dismantle many of the canal, pumps and water control structures which had torn it apart. We must purchase sugar lands, Sierra Club advised, to clean, store and allow the water to flow across the Southern Florida peninsula.


Over the last decade, a growing chorus of scientists, judges and economists validated what we had written, but little action was taken. Then one June afternoon in 2008 came a surprising call: ‘Governor Charlie Crist is going to make a major announcement tomorrow morning. Meet at the levee. No details given.’

It would be a very big announcement. The State of Florida would be buying the entire assets of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the two major land owners between Lake Okeechobee and the remaining natural Everglades. In that one instant, all the convoluted plumbing contraptions dreamt up by the Corps of Engineers fell like a heap of junk. Crist got it! And unlike the scientists who spoke, but were not heard, Crist had the power to do something about it!

Crist’s vision of regaining public ownership of critical Everglades land ultimately ran smack into the headwinds of a faltering economy and legal and political challenges by the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida and Florida Crystals, the Everglades’ other powerful sugar interest. The once mighty deal, $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres of sugar land, finally ended its slide this summer with an all-cash deal for approximately 27,000 acres with options to buy the rest over 10 years.

But here’s the important part. The deal got done. “What else can we do?” said Florida Crystals' Vice President Gaston Cantens last week. Despite opponents' unyielding maneuvers and the eventual entrance of the Tea Party, Crist pushed the ball over the goal line. The camel’s nose did breach the tent. And to use the words of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the die is cast.

Jonathan Ullman is the South Florida/Everglades Organizer for the Sierra Club