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Florida's Everglades buyout shrinks to fraction of promised restoration

Two years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist unveiled what looked to be the biggest triumph ever in the somewhat rocky history of Everglades restoration: a $1.75 billion deal to buy out U.S. Sugar lock, stock and sugar mills — and, most important, take over 187,000 acres.

On Tuesday, the state finally closed on the deal. The end result is greatly diminished from Crist's original promise. For $197 million, the state gets just 26,800 acres, a mere one-seventh of what was originally envisioned.

Some environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Everglades Foundation, hailed the scaled-down buyout as an important step forward. Others saw in it a poor omen for the future.

"I'm not opening any champagne, and I hope nobody else does," said Stuart Pimm, a Duke University biologist who has spent years studying endangered species in the Everglades.

What happened with the sugar buyout, Pimm pointed out, is what has happened with everything related to Everglades restoration since the project was launched a decade ago: Officials propose something with big promise, then postpone it, then settle for something smaller or drop it entirely.

To see this happen each time, Pimm said, "breaks your heart."

The repeated letdowns have left some Everglades advocates unsure about its future.

"I am very pessimistic at this point — more pessimistic than I have ever been in the past 15 years," said retired Col. Terry Rice, who was in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida when it first began planning to restore the Everglades. He has also worked as a consultant for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which tried to block the buyout.

One of the most promising projects aimed at restoring the slow flow of the River of Grass called for raising part of the Tamiami Trail, Pimm said. The corps said raising 11 miles of the highway across the Everglades would provide the greatest environmental benefits, and that plan was endorsed by environmental groups and local government.

But then the corps, citing the expense, scaled back, Pimm said, breaking ground this winter for a project designed to raise just a single mile of the road.

Similarly, the restoration plan approved in 2000 was a bold one. It called for ripping out some of the canals and levees that had drained the River of Grass over the years, while supplementing its flow with man-made marshes and gigantic pumps. The funding was to be split 50-50 between state and federal budgets.

After Sept. 11, 2001, though, federal funding largely dried up, so Florida's taxpayers carried the load alone. So far the state has spent more than $2.4 billion, mostly on land acquisition. The lack of federal participation led to lengthy delays in the start of several segments of the project, driving up their cost. Meanwhile, the National Research Council noted in a report released last month, the Everglades' own ecosystems showed a continued decline.

The blame lies not just with the federal government, but also with state politics, with each of three governors launching Everglades initiatives, Rice said.

Gov. Lawton Chiles backed the original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, he said. Gov. Jeb Bush's Acceler-8 program was aimed at pushing ahead primarily on some water supply projects. Then Gov. Crist dropped Acceler-8 in favor of his own U.S. Sugar buyout, Rice said.

The shifting state priorities keep throwing restoration off track, he said. And until Obama administration officials provide strong leadership to get the project back on track, he said, it's likely to happen again.

Crist's proposed sugar buyout stumbled when the collapse of Florida's real estate market led to declining tax revenues, forcing the state to reduce its purchase.

"We had no control over the economy taking a skid," said Eric Buehrmann, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that bought the land. "We felt it was prudent to get the land we could afford."

The land the state bought Tuesday includes 17,900 acres of citrus in Hendry County and 8,900 acres of sugar cane land in Palm Beach County. The deal also gives the district a 10-year option to buy U.S. Sugar's remaining 153,000 acres.

The earliest the district can take possession of the citrus land is 2012. It can take possession of the 9,000 acres of sugar cane land in 2013. The state will spend the time before that obtaining the necessary permits for the work to be done there.

Everglades Foundation president Kirk Fordham said the buyout will help with a neglected aspect of the restoration, providing areas that can be used for cleaning pollution out of the water flowing into the Everglades.

The foundation commissioned an economic study that found the $15 billion restoration project could create more than 400,000 jobs in everything from fishing to real estate, generating up to $123 billion in economic benefits. For instance, Fordham said, it would be easier to sell a house on a waterway that's no longer full of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

Ironically, the greatest boost for Everglades restoration has come as a result of the same problem that forced the state to scale back the sugar buyout: the economic meltdown. The reason: The stimulus bill provided funding for several key segments of the Everglades project that were ready to roll when money at last became available.

The question now is who will have the money to push the Everglades project forward from here. There's little likelihood of more stimulus money coming from Congress. Meanwhile, environmental activists say they worry that whoever replaces Crist as governor won't make the Everglades a priority.

"Here we have this beautiful national park and we're harming it," Pimm said. "We're the richest country on earth and we can't save it."

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

Florida's Everglades buyout shrinks to fraction of promised restoration 10/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 7:21am]
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