LOXAHATCHEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Fla., June 24 (Reuters) - The state of Florida announced on Tuesday it intends to spend $1.75 billion to buy a large chunk of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar, one of a number of sugar companies blamed for polluting the precious wildlife habitat.
U.S. Sugar Corp., one of the largest privately held U.S. agriculture firms, will abandon its Florida sugar plantations and go out of business in six years, handing over about 187,000 acres of farmland to the state's efforts to restore the Everglades, company and state officials said.
The purchase, lauded by environmentalists as the "missing link" in the restoration project, will be paid for with $50 million cash and $1.7 billion in certificates of participation, similar to bonds, that will be sold in public debt markets, the South Florida Water Management District said.
The land deal would revive an effort to turn sugar cane fields back into marshes and waterways that would help cleanse polluted Everglades water and carry it from Lake Okeechobee to the southern reaches of the Everglades and Florida Bay.
Environmentalists, who have criticized the sugar industry for decades for dumping fertilizer-tainted water into Florida's famous "River of Grass," raved about the deal.
"It's spectacular. I don't think any of us could have fathomed it," said Kirk Fordham of the Everglades Foundation. "We really are entering a new chapter in the history of the Everglades."
The deal, which calls for Florida to buy U.S. Sugar Corp., including the land, its sugar mill and refinery and its citrus orchards and processing plant, exists only as a signed statement of principles now. State and company officials gave themselves 75 days to wrap up the details.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican sometimes mentioned as a possible running mate for presidential hopeful John McCain, announced the plan at a news conference on the edge of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, with sugar cane fields and Everglades marshes in sight.
"It is as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park, Yellowstone," Crist said. "This represents, if we're successful and I believe we will be, the largest conservation purchase in the history of the state of Florida."
The Everglades wetlands is a shallow, slow-moving river as little as 6 inches deep and a vast sawgrass prairie with marshes, pine forests and mangrove islands.
It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and is home to rare and endangered species like the American crocodile and the Florida panther.
More than 35 percent of the original wetlands have been taken over by development or agriculture and the remainder has been starved of water because of the irrigation needs of sugar plantations, vegetable farms and citrus fields. Runoff from farms has also severely polluted the wetlands.
The U.S. federal government and the state of Florida have had a $7.8 billion plan in place since 2000 to try to restore and protect the Everglades, but progress has been slow.
Mary Barley, a longtime campaigner for Everglades restoration, said the importance of the U.S. Sugar land to the effort could not be overstated.
"If Lake Okeechobee is the heart, this piece of land is all the veins and arteries that are going out to all of the estuaries and water supply in south Florida," she said. "Without this component, it was never going to work."
The South Florida Water Management District said the deal would be paid from tax revenue.
"We are not increasing our tax rate to do this," district executive director Carol Wehle said. "We are making this work within our existing ad valorum and budget structure."
The deal will put a company that has farmed the Everglades for nearly 80 years and produces 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year out of business and its 1,800 employees out of jobs. "Our business will be done in six years," chief executive Robert Buker said.
Editing by Jane Sutton