MIAMI, March 26 Florida is cutting back its land purchase
deal with U.S. Sugar Corp as budget shortfalls force it to downsize efforts
deemed vital by environmentalists to restore the endangered Everglades
wetland, local media reported Thursday.
A preliminary deal struck in June called for the state to spend $1.75
billion to buy up all of U.S. Sugar's land, one of the nation's largest
privately held agricultural firms.
Under a revised deal, unveiled in November, state officials said the
price tag had been cut to $1.34 billion but still involved buying 181,000
acres of land considered critical to the Everglades revival.
The South Florida Water Management District board had been expected to
sell certificates of participation, instruments similar to bonds, to
finance the deal.
The Miami Herald said Governor Charlie Crist, stymied by plummeting tax
revenues and soaring unemployment, was now slashing the deal in a state on
the front lines of the U.S. housing and mortgage default crisis, however.
Citing sources close to the negotiations, the newspaper said the state
would now purchase no more than about 75,000 acres of U.S. Sugar's land for
a total price of roughly $500 million.
A spokeswoman for Crist declined to comment and U.S. Sugar spokeswoman
Judy Sanchez said the company had no immediate announcement to make about
any revised deal with the state.
"There's discussions, and discussions have been continuing," said
Eric Buermann, chairman of the South Florida Water Management
District's governing board, could not be immediately reached for comment.
But he told the Herald the land deal, which Crist heralded in December
as "the most important step in the history of true Everglades restoration,"
was overly ambitious in the face of a failing economy.
"I think everyone has looked at the numbers and realized the
affordability is a problem in the current economy," Buermann said.
The purchase of the land had been expected to jump-start long-stalled
efforts to turn farm fields back into marshes and waterways that would help
cleanse polluted Everglades water and carry it from Lake Okeechobee to
Key environmental groups had been solidly behind the land acquisition,
and have blamed Florida's sugar industry for decades for dumping
fertilizer-tainted water into the Everglades.
The wetlands, a shallow sawgrass prairie dotted with pine forests and
and mangrove islands, comprise the largest subtropical wilderness in the
United States and are home to endangered species including the Florida
panther and American crocodile.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Jim Loney)