Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Everglades Land Purchase

Yesterday the state of Florida announced that it would purchase 187,000 acres in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar, the largest domestic sugar company, for $1.75 billion. While the state and the company have agreed to the sale in principle, most of the details will not be completed for another 75 days.

Under the proposal, expected to take 75 days to finalize, U.S. Sugar Corp. would sell some 300 square miles along with two massive refineries, 200 miles of railroad and other assets to the South Florida Water Management District.

The company would then continue farming for six years under a lease with the state before ending operations. The district hopes to swap some of the company's holdings with those of other sugar growers, opening a massive swath south of Lake Okeechobee to construct reservoirs and pollution cleanup marshes that would resolve two of the restoration effort's biggest problems -- the water is still too polluted and there isn't enough of it to restore the natural flow of the River of Grass.

Bob Buker, president of U.S. Sugar, said he was saddened at the thought of a deal that would effectively end his company's long history of farming in the Everglades, but also heartened that it could resolve some of the state's most serious environment issues.
The significance of the deal is that it will allow the state to reconnect Everglades National Park with Lake Okeechobee. Reducing agriculture in the region should reduce pollution levels right away, and further pollution reductions will follow as restored wetlands filter harmful chemicals. According to the L.A. Times, the purchase will eliminate the need for building "intricate dams, canals and pumps" to control water flow, which should save money for other projects. Of course, habitat restoration should help stabilize local bird populations. Overall the purchase seems like a winner.

A massive amount of land is changing hands in return for a massive amount of money. One thing I cannot help but wonder is where that money is coming from. In recent years, Florida has suffered from even worse fiscal management than New Jersey. According to the Miami Herald, funds for the purchase will come out of other Everglades restoration projects, but which ones is not yet clear. The L.A. Times reports the payments will be "$50 million in cash and $1.7 billion in certificates of participation to be sold on Wall Street." Either way, that aspect bears watching.