| MIAMI, June 25
MIAMI, June 25 Florida's proposed $1.75 billion
buyout of U.S. Sugar Corp. and its cane fields still has high
hurdles to clear before the coveted acreage can be put to use
cleansing and restoring the state's famed Everglades.
Environmentalists who long accused U.S. Sugar and other
farmers of polluting the fragile wetland were positively giddy
over Tuesday's announcement that the state would buy 187,000
acres (75,680 hectares) of land described as the missing link
in the decades-old effort to restore the River of Grass.
They said the deal offers a real opportunity to save the
threatened habitat, a vast, mosquito- and alligator-infested
tract of shallow river, sawgrass prairie, mangrove islands and
pine forests in southern Florida that is home to numerous rare
species including the endangered Florida panther.
The deal's structure, however, will allow U.S. Sugar to
farm the land for the next six years, and it could take a
decade after that to build giant reservoirs and marshes that
will allow more and cleaner water to flow south from Lake
Okeechobee to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
The first step is to complete the complex deal, which is
now only a statement of principles. State officials must value
the land and put in place the funding, including $1.7 billion
in certificates of participation to be sold to investors.
Because the U.S. Sugar acreage isn't precisely what is
needed, the state must orchestrate a series of complicated land
swaps with neighboring farmers.
"We need negotiations with other landowners to trade
parcels so that we can actually develop a corridor that runs
from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades," said Debbie
Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund. "That will be a very
Once Florida assembles the corridor, it begins the hard
work of renovating the land to reestablish the flow of water.
"How much money will it take? How do we restore it? Where
are the pollutants that need to be removed? Who's
responsibility is it?" Harrison said. "These are questions that
need to be answered."
The land must be converted to a series of reservoirs,
stormwater treatment areas and filtering marshes that store and
clean billions of gallons of water so it can be sent south,
restoring a natural flow into the wetland.
Tom Van Lent, a scientist with the Everglades Foundation
who has been studying cures for what ails the Everglades for 25
years, said he envisions the world's largest reservoir, holding
some 325 trillion gallons (1,477 trillion litres) of water.
"We take water when it's very wet, put it in this big
savings account reservoir and then withdraw it in years like
this year when the Everglades are very dry," he said.
"For an investment in 100,000 acres of land here," he said,
pointing to a map of the farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, "I
get more than 3 million acres of restored Everglades in return.
That's a reasonable bargain."
Van Lent is among those who think it can be done 10 years
after the land is bought, or 16 years from now.
But the cane fields have not been the only barrier to
Everglades restoration. Environmentalists and scientists are
still grappling with the Tamiami Trail, a ground-level roadway
that stretches from Miami to the west coast of Florida and
blocks water flow to the southern end of the state.
A bridge across the Everglades may be the answer.
"In order to really let it flow you're going to need to get
that barrier created by Tamiami Trail out of the way," said
Eric Draper, deputy director of environmental group Audubon of
"There have been a number of proposals for that. It's a
little controversial. We need to somehow get that road elevated
and out of the way so the water can get moving underneath it."
Despite the obstacles, some environmentalists have said the
$8 billion Everglades restoration plan, announced with great
fanfare in 2000 but since bogged down in funding problems, was
never really viable without the U.S. Sugar land.
Now, they say, the River of Grass has a chance.
(Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman)