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Florida megadeal aims to restore fabled wetlands, close US Sugar

Since US Sugar landholdings are not contiguous, the state will try to swap land with other sugar cane companies to forge a corridor for water to flow into the reservoirs to the Everglades.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) June 25, 2008
Florida has reached a tentative 1.75-billion-dollar deal to buy the largest US sugar producer and turn its vast swaths of farmland into reservoirs to protect the fabled Everglades wetlands, US media reported Wednesday.

"The plan, described by Governor Charlie Crist as the largest conservation purchase in Florida's history, envisions restoring some of the natural flow of water to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee," The Washington Post reported. The amount of land involved is some 187,000 acres (75,678 hectares).

Crist has been named as a potential running mate for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

The announcement by Crist Tuesday capped months of secret negotiations with US Sugar. He called the deal as "monumental" in scope.

Spanning 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is the third-largest national park in the lower 48 US states, after Death Valley and Yellowstone.

For decades water from areas north of the massive wetlands has been diverted to fast-growing cities and for farming. Pollution has taken a growing toll.

The deal with US Sugar would help restore more of the pre-development ecosystem; water could move from Lake Okeechobee into marshes that filter it and then on to the "sea of grass" at the southern end of the Florida peninsula. A direct lake-Everglades connection has been a dream of environmental groups.

"It was a really well-kept secret. I think the Pentagon would be jealous of how well it was kept," Susan Kennedy, executive director of the Everglades Coalition, was quoted by the Post as saying.

Under part of the deal still to be negotiated, the South Florida Water Management District, a state agency will make the purchase in part with property taxes earmarked for Everglades restoration.

Since US Sugar landholdings are not contiguous, the state will try to swap land with other sugar cane companies to forge a corridor for water to flow into the reservoirs to the Everglades.

"Acquiring this large swath south of Lake Okeechobee will be an historic turning point for the largest watershed project in the world," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.

Of what is being described as the biggest land acquisition ever by the state of Florida, Crist said: "I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida and the people of America, as well as our planet, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration."

It was not immediately clear if US Sugar workers would approve the deal, or seek to derail it. US Sugar, operating in this location since 1931, technically is owned by the workers.

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