- Apr 1, 2008
- South of the Haggis Munching Line
Booting US Sugar from the Everglades
By MICHAEL GRUNWALD/WELLINGTON, FLA.
Tue Jun 24, 3:45 PM ET
Florida Governor Charlie Crist could be turning his constituents into sugar barons. And he's about to set the stage for the Everglades to come back from the dead.
At a news conference Tuesday morning near the imperiled "River of Grass", Governor Crist announced a $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. It will also 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.
"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, although sources said U.S. Sugar would lease back its land for six years. 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. In a recent interview with TIME, he hinted that he was planning some "breathtaking changes" for the Everglades. "Putting your heart and soul into it really makes a difference," he said.
The end of U.S. Sugar would clearly have ramifications. 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. The company has always been popular in its headquarters of Clewiston, "The World's Sweetest Town," but labor activists have accused it of mistreating its workers, and environmental activists constantly blame the firm for ravaging the Everglades.
Big Sugar did block the flow, and suck the water out of the Everglades, and sent nutrients into the Everglades, converting its sawgrass marshes into cattail clumps and inspiring one of the most contentious pollution lawsuits in American history. But ever since the litigation was settled in the mid-1990s, Big Sugar has done an impressive job of cleaning up its act; development has been a much greater threat to the health of the Everglades. Still, U.S. Sugar executives have often warned that they might grow condos someday, and environmentalists have dreamed of locking up their land.
Now their dreams appear to be coming true. They're about to become part-owners of Big Sugar. "This could be a game-changer," said Everglades activist Alan Farago before the press conference was held. "The biggest obstacle has always been the EAA. Now we can try to salvage restoration." There are still plenty of details to be worked out, such as how the state will raise cash during a fiscal crisis, and the sugar industry has a troublesome history in Florida. The Crist administration will have to negotiate land swaps with Florida Crystals, and it will have to figure out what to do with a mill, a refinery and a railroad that are now the property of the state. And there's no doubt that the new opportunities for water storage in the agricultural area will require a revamping of the original restoration plan from 2000, which envisioned hundreds of underground storage wells. But that's a good thing; the storage wells would have been ridiculously expensive, and the original plan was dead in the water.
The Everglades has been under siege for over a century, in part because it doesn't look the way people expect environmental treasures to look. "To put it crudely," wrote Everglades National Park's first superintendent Daniel Beard, "there is nothing in the Everglades that would make Mr. Johnnie Q. Public suck in his breath." If Crist can reverse the flow of history and help the Everglades flow again, that really would be a breathtaking change.
Any folks from Florida commenting on this?
Two issues that are strong on this forum are outsourcing and employment both of which this scheme would impact on. Seems interesting that with the possibility of increasing national unemployment such a scheme would be going ahead; 1700 jobs seem to be on the line and closing the Sugar Company means that production will presumably be met from overseas?
I'm assuming that this is an environmental project that has been debated and approved at State or Federal level?