Gridlock in Everglades Land Deal
For many who have been following the saga of the Everglades of South Florida, it seemed that restoration and conservation plans formed during the last decade were only getting more complicated and mired in bureaucracy. That is, until Gov. Charlie Crist stepped up to the plate to make a game-changing proposition to buy back land currently owned by U.S. Sugar Corp.
The proposed purchase of land by the state of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District offered the prospect of a more straight-forward and timely solution to replenish vital flows of water from Lake Okeechobee to the threatened Everglades ecosystem. Yet soon after Gov. Crist announced his intentions to buy 180,000 acres of land for a price tag of $1.34 billion, the state was hit with financial hardship, as a result of the economic downturn, that provoked calls to scale down the project.
As a result, the governor has been forced to cut the total acreage of the deal twice. Now the the state is still trying to piece together a much reduced version of the buyback, totaling approximately 75,000 acres for $500 million. Despite the reductions, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) was still positive about the plan. According to Governing Board Chairman, Eric Buermann:
“Benefits of this acquisition to the Everglades and Florida’s coastal estuaries are immense, providing us the opportunity to restore a unique and treasured ecosystem in ways not previously envisioned. By approving this revised acquisition, the Board has balanced its duty to both the environment and the taxpayers, embracing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while protecting the agency’s mission responsibilities.”
Yet, there are others who do not feel that the purchasing the land from U.S. Sugar is the best way to achieve results in the Everglades restoration. Although the acquisition would be likely to help minimize problems, such as harmful effluent from Lake Okeechobee, which damages coastal estuaries, or phosphorus loading from agricultural systems directly into the Everglades, there are several parties who feel that it is not the best option.
Specifically, the Miccosukee Tribe and Florida Crystals, a sugar production company that competes with U.S. Sugar, argue that even the much-reduced land deal will cost tax payers too much, with little guarantee of measurable benefits. These opponents contend that pouring funds into land acquisition schemes will detract from financing for more more surefire projects, whose implementation has already been significantly delayed due to budgetary issues. Additionally, they contend that the burden of financing the purchase would be unduly placed on taxpayers in the state.
The Miccosukee and Florida Crystals have brought the case to court, under the assertion that the SFWMD does not have the right to borrow the money to buy the land. The case was originally tried in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, where the verdict permitted the SFWMD to borrow $650 million to buy 73,000 acres. The Court, however, ruled against larger loan amounts that would be intended for future purchases, dashing the hopes of many environmentalists who had held out for the possibility of increasing the size of the acquisition to at least 100,000 acres in the future.
Dissatisfied with this ruling, the Miccosukee and Florida Crystals are taking the case to the Florida Supreme Court. The case is expected to be underway before the end of the year. Even if the ruling is favorable to the purchase, however, under the current agreement with U.S. Sugar, the State of Florida and the SFWMD would only have until June of 2010 to obtain the necessary funding to finalize the deal. While skeptics have little faith that the sum can be amassed, given the current economic climate, supporters maintain that Federal funding, stimulus packages, land swaps, or other creative alternatives will allow the agreement to move forward.
While the ruling of the state Supreme Court won’t be expected for several more months, the ecological verdict in the Everglades is already in; if restorative action of one kind or another is not taken swiftly, the longevity of this unique ecosystem is in serious jeopardy.