Florida slashes sugar land deal

Bid to restore Everglades suffers

The Associated PressApril 2, 2009 

— Gov. Charlie Crist's celebrated $1.34 billion deal to buy 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land to help restore the Everglades is being scaled back by more than half because the state can't afford the original deal, the governor announced Wednesday.

The reduction means the state will now buy 72,500 acres of land for $533 million, and hold a 10-year option to buy the remaining land. The decision means the original deal -- hailed by environmentalists -- will be far less ambitious than planned.

"The economy has been what it has been, and we have to deal with the parameters that we are given," Crist said.

U.S. Sugar, the nation's largest cane sugar producer, owns a vast amount of land between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Environmentalists have long criticized the sugar industry for cutting off the natural flow to the Everglades and contaminating it with fertilizer.

The goal of the land purchase is to convert farmland into conservation land, allowing water managers to create a system to clean and store water before sending it south into the Everglades.

In June, Crist announced a $1.75 billion deal which included U.S. Sugar's assets, such as its mill, railroad and citrus processing plant. In November, a revised $1.34 billion deal was announced that didn't include those pieces.

The South Florida Water Management District plans to borrow money through bonds for the deal and to pay off the debt with property taxes from its 16-county region stretching from Orlando to the Keys.

But property values dropped 12 percent last year. In addition, Florida is facing about a $6 billion budget gap between expected revenue and expenses.

Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said that, given the economy, it would have been easy for the governor to abandon the project.

"We're frankly overjoyed that he hasn't," Fordham said. "The circumstances that we're facing dictate flexibility, creativity and perseverance. ... The governor and the management of U.S. Sugar have exhibited all of those traits to keep this extraordinary project moving forward."

The Everglades is essentially an enormous river slowly moving through a vast marsh that historically covered 11,000 square miles. It is now less than half its original size.

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