Column: Casting it as Big Sugar vs. Big Nature isn't helping to restore the Everglades

A recent ad comparing U.S. Sugar's pollution of the Everglades to lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., only drove the issue further into the muck. Above is a U.S. Sugar processing plant in Clewiston. SAM OWENS   |   Times
A recent ad comparing U.S. Sugar's pollution of the Everglades to lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., only drove the issue further into the muck. Above is a U.S. Sugar processing plant in Clewiston.SAM OWENS | Times
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The politics surrounding the Everglades were driven further into the muck last month after prominent environmental organizations took out newspaper ads comparing the U.S. Sugar Corp.'s pollution of wetlands to the impacts of lead poisoning in Flint, Mich.

This escalating rhetoric only further solidifies the standoff between "Big Sugar" and "Big Nature" at a time when Florida politics hardly needs additional partisanship.

Environmentalists popularized the term "Big Sugar" in the 1990s to counter the sugar companies' fashioning of themselves as humble farmers whose livelihoods were under attack. The sugar industry — whose bigness lies in both its acreage and political giving — has used its influence to subvert efforts to impose a state tax on sugar and, more recently, to water down legislative efforts to acquire agricultural lands for water storage.

Once again, the companies and their legislative allies are countering these escalating attacks by portraying Everglades activists in oppositional terms, what we might call Big Nature. From this rhetorical position, Big Nature is an equally well-financed political machine, intimately connected to the bureaucratic excesses of Big Government. The blogosphere is filled with conspiratorial attacks on Big Nature, often characterized as a "juggernaut" of incestuous leadership and shadowy funding mechanisms.

This script positions Big Sugar as a protector of jobs and rural communities, with Big Nature only interested in saving nature for the people who can afford to drive there, lattes steaming in the cupholders of their Priuses. When Alan Farago, the president of Friends of the Everglades, recently said the Everglades and Flint represented "similar perils in water quality," it did little to lessen concerns that environmentalists are out of touch with the poor and vulnerable in this country.

I am sympathetic to the environmental community's frustrations, as I was raised in a family of committed Everglades scientists and have spent most of my life slogging around these mangrove swamps and sawgrass prairies. I have little doubt that without the efforts of environmental organizations, what's left of the Everglades would have been paved over years ago.

Still, the current Big Sugar vs. Big Nature scenario is producing partisan divisions that are too simple. As should be clear, the Big Sugar (Republican) vs. Big Nature (Democratic) conflict aligns nicely with contemporary political positions. Certainly, Big Sugar's contributions to Republican political campaigns and Gov. Rick Scott's support for Big Sugar's interests simplifies this dichotomy.

Yet the Everglades are complex and resist such simplicity. Republican leadership and bipartisan compromise have been crucial to whatever gains we have made toward Everglades restoration and improving water quality. The 1996 penny-a-pound tax campaign — the original battle against Big Sugar — was led by Republican environmentalists, including Nathaniel Reed, former assistant secretary of the interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the first major restoration effort authorized, required years of bipartisan compromise, including with groups previously opposed to environmental advocacy. This climate of cooperation is essential, even in an era when shouting seems to be the only method of communication.

We need courageous Republican leaders to continue to advocate for land acquisition in the Everglades Agricultural Area and for protecting water quality in Lake Okeechobee. Of equal importance, we need to make sure that blind attacks on Big Sugar don't limit the political possibilities for that leadership.

Laura A. Ogden has written two books about the history of the Everglades. She is an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow of the Oped Project. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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