Florida agrees to buy swath of Everglades to protect it from oil drilling

(Reuters) - The state of Florida has reached a deal with a private real estate firm to buy a large swath of environmentally sensitive wetlands in the heart of the Everglades to spare the tract from oil drilling, the governor announced on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis talks to the media during a news conference as Hurricane Dorian approaches the state, at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, U.S. August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Florida’s agreement to purchase 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) of land from Kanter Real Estate LLC, if consummated, would mark the largest wetlands acquisition by the state in a decade, Governor Ron DeSantis said in a statement.

The deal was reached after a Florida appeals court last year sided against the state Environmental Protection Department’s bid to deny the Miami-based real estate company a permit to explore for oil on the land in question.

The Kanter family agreed to sell the property for $16.5 million, but the price would jump to $18 million if the deal closes after June 30.

Acquisition of the Kanter property would bring to nearly 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) the amount of wetlands placed under permanent protection within a key Everglades conservation area set aside for environmental restoration and recreation, the state said.

“This significant purchase will permanently save these lands from oil drilling,” said DeSantis, a first-term Republican who made Everglades restoration a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign and policy agenda since taking office.

He recently proposed $625 million annually in state funding for Everglades restoration and related water quality projects.

The larger conservation area at issue provides habitat for more than 60 endangered and threatened species of wildlife, according to the head of the Environmental Department, Noah Valenstein. Among the Everglades’ most notable creatures under federal protection are the Florida panther, the American crocodile, the American alligator and the West Indian manatee.

Water flowing through that area also recharges the Biscayne Aquifer, the source of drinking water for all of South Florida, including the greater Miami metropolitan area, said Temperince Morgan, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Florida chapter.

Her group and others have worked with the state and federal government for years to rebuild water storage and treatment for the wetlands in and around the parcel that the DeSantis administration has agreed to purchase, Morgan said.

The tract represents a critical remaining remnant of the original Everglades, a vast expanse of subtropical wilderness now encompassing about 1.5 million acres (607,028 hectares) of saw grass marshes, mangrove forests and hardwood hammocks.

About half of South Florida’s original wetlands have been lost to human development, and the region remains under pressure from agriculture, urban sprawl, rising sea levels and invasive species, such as the Burmese python.

John Kanter, president of the real estate firm, told the Wall Street Journal his company had planned to pursue oil exploration with the “highest degree of safety.”

Reporting by Steve Gorman from Culver City, California; Editing by Sandra Maler