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There is an illusion of health here.

The water looks clear. Long-legged birds and alligators lurk in the vast expanse of sawgrass. But to the man gunning an airboat with a Cadillac engine across the prairie, it is a tropical paradise that became a killing field.

Forty years ago, when Tom Shirley first patrolled the Everglades, great flocks of birds passed like clouds overhead. "Cloud after cloud after cloud," he recalls. "A mile or so from them, you could hear the ha-whooh of hundreds of thousands of wings."

Today those flocks are gone. Gone, too, from an Everglades alternately drained and deluged for human purposes, are most of the other animals Shirley once saw here. "They've killed out the mammals," he says. "The deer, the coons, the bobcats, even the mice and the rats."

Next week, millions of Floridians will vote on a controversial plan to restore this unique wilderness.

A group called Save Our Everglades has placed three constitutional amendments on the 1996 ballot. One authorizes an Everglades trust fund, and one makes polluters primarily responsible for restoration costs.

The third has provoked the costliest political campaign in Florida history. It levies a 1-cent fee on every pound of Everglades sugar, a tax bitterly opposed by cane growers who could pay as much as $900-million during the next 25 years.

If the tax passes, would it actually save the Everglades?

Proponents say it would. Sugar growers say the money would be wasted. Shirley has spent a lifetime in the Everglades, and he isn't sure.

The money would come from an industry he blames for altering the natural water system of the Everglades. And it would go to the South Florida Water Management District, an agency he feels helped sacrifice Everglades wildlife to agriculture and urban development.

He will vote, with misgivings, for the tax.

"I'm not confident that they'll spend it in a way that will improve the Everglades," he says, but "I hope, man I hope."

Shirley brought his first airboat to the Everglades in 1955 as an officer of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. He built a cabin on a tree island, which he shared with a collection of wildlife that would frighten away most people.

Red wasps coated its inside walls, and big yellow grasshoppers its outside walls. Overnight his skillet would be cleaned by Bombardier beetles, an insect that, if alarmed, shoots a noxious vapor from its tail. Alligators and water moccasins abounded in the waters around his cabin. In wet months, herds of deer, rabbits and other mammals shared his island. When the Everglades dried, they left to forage.

Today, no form of Everglades wildlife seems abundant to his eyes.

In his airboat, Shirley zips across the illusory landscape of the Everglades. From a distance this land could pass for Kansas prairie, a seemingly endless field of grass dotted with clumps of trees. From above, it becomes a grassy lake reflecting the clouds scudding across a wide Florida sky. From horizon to horizon, it is devoid of people.

Blackbirds scatter in the sawgrass before the boat. An occasional heron or egret awkwardly lifts away. Shirley points out an Everglades kite, one of 65 Everglades species now listed as threatened with extinction.

Shirley kills the boat's motor. Jumping overboard, he lands in what a government system classifies as Water Conservation Area 3, one of several zones in the Everglades where runoff gets pumped after heavy rains. The water soaks his jeans to the thighs.

"See this water, for instance," he says. "When you get deer into water this deep for six weeks, they're going to be dead. They can't get out to feed."

Across the Everglades, cattails fed by phosphorus from cane fields are replacing native sawgrass. Other areas have been claimed by melaleuca, an exotic tree from Australia. Many of the tree islands Shirley once used as landmarks have been lost to excess pumping. On surviving islands, he sees tall fig trees dying.

Shirley has retired from the game commission and now conducts private airboat tours. At 65, he wears the weathered look of a man who has spent a lifetime on the water and the sorrow of one who has seen his favorite place destroyed.

He hopes the tax to save the Everglades will not prove an illusory promise. Government officials have been talking about saving the Everglades for a long time now, and where is the wildlife?

"I'll believe it when I see it," he says.

It's the "quantity'

In their campaign to defeat the tax, sugar growers are banking heavily on public distrust of "another billion for the bureaucrats," personified in television ads as champagne-drinking fat cats in a limo.

Sam Poole hardly fits this image. The executive director of the South Florida Water Management District is a tall, thin man, professorial in demeanor, and at the moment he is hunching over sheets of data.

The numbers represent stormwater runoff of phosphorus, the fertilizer ingredient blamed for altering plant life in an Everglades ecosystem where natural phosphorus is practically non-existent.

In one year, it appears Everglades sugar growers have cut their phosphorus runoff about 70 percent.

This is good, Poole says, but not cause to celebrate. The actual runoff, 161 metric tons, was relatively low but not the best on record.

Average phosphorus levels in the water from sugar farms are now down to about 90 parts per billion _ again good, Poole says, but still high in an ecosystem where natural levels are closer to 10 parts per billion.

In the heat of a political campaign, Poole has heard some people in the sugar business touting the new phosphorus data as evidence the Everglades have been saved. He thinks they're overstating their case.

To use a football analogy, "We're starting the second half, and the Everglades is down 42 to nothing," he says. "Sugar has this wide receiver who's scored one touchdown, and now they're doing this in-your-face dance in the end zone."

Poole worries the sugar growers. Historically they have had their share of friends on the board of the agency that allocates water in South Florida. Now, they suspect, the guy in charge of daily operations would like to hand them a $900-million bill for Everglades projects.

For his part, Poole has grown to resent the barrage of sugar industry ads implying that "this lazy, bumbling bureaucracy with no plans is trying to impose this tax. It's kind of wearing thin on me," he says.

He declines to state his position on the sugar tax. He works for a board deeply divided on the issue, headed by a chairwoman who publicly agrees with sugar growers that the tax is unjustifiable.

What Poole will say is that restoring the Everglades will be an immensely expensive undertaking _ "our best estimate is somewhere between $3-billion to $5-billion over the next 20 years" _ and that most of these costs will be borne by the public.

"The only question," he says, "is how much sugar will contribute."

The restoration projects are expected to cover much of South Florida, from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, the agricultural areas below the lake, the state-owned water conservation areas, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

Only the first phase has a final plan, a budget and revenue sources in place. It focuses on phosphorus removal, essentially by fighting cattails with cattails. To buffer the Everglades from an unwanted nutrient, cattails will be planted in vast "treatment" marshes larger than Fort Lauderdale and Miami combined.

About two-thirds of the money for this phase will come from South Florida property taxes and smaller sources such as tolls on Alligator Alley, the interstate highway bisecting the Everglades.

Sugar growers contribute the balance under a formula that rewards them for reducing phosphorus runoff from their fields. If they maintain their current performance, their share will be $232-million in "agricultural privilege" taxes.

This privilege is substantial, according to Poole. His agency directly subsidizes Florida sugar cane, he says, with a pumping and drainage system in the Everglades agricultural area that costs $12 to $15 for every dollar returned in property taxes from growers.

Poole expects the total costs for the first phase of Everglades restoration to reach $796-million.

Still to come are further phosphorus controls and efforts to supply a more natural quantity of water to the Everglades.

About half the original Everglades are occupied by cities and farms. The system that enables them to stay there causes extreme water conditions in the remaining Everglades, dumping water into them after heavy storms, robbing them of water in times of drought.

By now, returning a natural water flow to the Everglades is out of the question. Mimicking a natural water flow is the goal of restoration planners, and that may involve environmental projects of unprecedented scale _ buying land, creating water reservoirs, breaching levees, maybe even elevating a highway.

Poole doubts the Everglades can recover unless the water quantity problem is solved. He thinks manmade changes in water volume are primarily to blame for its widespread loss of wildlife, including 90 percent of its wading birds since Everglades National Park was created.

Under certain conditions, pure freshwater can be poisonous, he says. He particularly remembers one year when so much rainfall was pumped suddenly to sea that "we had crabs and lobsters crawling out of the water and onto the land to escape.

"They died, of course."

"They want our land'

The new man in charge of phosphorus reduction at U.S. Sugar Corp. headquarters in Clewiston is a former bureaucrat himself.

Michael Gould moved here a few months ago from Illinois, where he led a U.S. Department of Agriculture research group that developed a fluffy oat fiber for white bread.

He too has been appalled at the ads in this campaign _ the Save Our Everglades ads "depicting sugar cane runoff as if it were some sort of toxic material. Or sewage," he says.

"Sugar cane, in my opinion, is probably the most sustainable crop produced in the United States. Corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, oats _ all of that stuff is highly degrading to the environment. What attracted me to sugar cane is the chance to work with a clean system."

It is also, he says, a crop that demands relatively little phosphorus _ about half as much as corn, one-third as much as celery, one-fourth as much as lettuce.

At U.S. Sugar, Gould heads a 50-person research department that aims to minimize the nutrients leaving the farm. It's a goal with environmental and economic benefits. Reducing runoff helps the Everglades, lowers "agricultural privilege" taxes and decreases fertilizer costs.

The reduction plan relies on a list of "best management practices."

Some are simple: letting weeds grow beside canals to control erosion, digging sump holes below culverts to trap dirt, throwing phosphorus-bearing soil back on the field if rain causes a washout.

Some are surprisingly high-tech.

To eliminate slopes where water could run, U.S. Sugar uses laser beams to level its fields. At its pump stations, new rules have been posted on signs urging workers to reduce pumping and save the Everglades. The rules specify minimum and maximum levels in each canal, along with the required delay after a rainstorm to let sediment settle first.

Now the company is testing a fertilizing technique that puts satellite and computer technology aboard an all-terrain vehicle. While a satellite pinpoints the vehicle's precise location, a computer-drawn grid shows the field's changing soil composition and adjusts, automatically, the application of fertilizer every square yard.

"All of my fields, before I plant them I put them into a laser-level program," boasts Walter Parker Jr., the company's agriculture chief. "When you get through, you've got a field that's table-top level."

Parker gets emotional about the sugar tax. He says he has watched the children of U.S. Sugar workers cry when their parents told them they might have to leave Clewiston.

"I've had brothers and nephews and uncles here. We're all worried about it," he says as he drives through the cane fields.

"They want our land. They want our land. They're going to tax us, and turn around and buy our land, and put us out of business."

In fields to the south, clouds of brown smoke curl into the Everglades sky. It's harvest time in sugar country, a season that begins by burning cane fields to leave their sweet juice in bare stalks.

But not for U.S. Sugar.

This year, the sky above its fields will not be darkened before Election Day. In an unprecedented move, U.S. Sugar has decided to delay its harvest. Through Tuesday, its employees will be campaigning across Florida instead against the penny-a-pound tax.

Parker expects the 1996 harvest to start a day or two after the vote.