Economy Forces Fla. To Rethink Everglades Deal

Economic realities are forcing Florida to rethink what it can accomplish in restoring the Everglades. Gov. Charlie Crist announced Wednesday a revised buyout of U.S. Sugar. He originally proposed a $1.3 billion purchase of 180,000 acres. Under the new terms, the state will now acquire more than 70,000 acres for $530 million.

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Economic realities have intruded on Florida's efforts to save the Everglades. Environmentalists were thrilled last year when the state announced a deal to buy out one of the region's largest landholders, U.S. Sugar. It was a huge deal with a huge price tag. But today, Florida's governor said the recession has forced him to downsize that deal by more than half.

From Miami, NPR's, Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Even after the downsizing, it's still the largest land conservation deal in Florida's history, an area about twice the size of Orlando. The original deal was far larger, 180,000 acres of land, plus all of U.S. Sugar's plants and facilities for $1.75 billion. But it was announced at a critical time, shortly before the economy and the stock market went into freefall.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): You know, nothing worthwhile in life is easy. This has not been easy.

ALLEN: At a news conference in Tallahassee today, Governor Charlie Crist said the challenging economic conditions forced Florida and U.S. Sugar to rethink the original deal. As the economy turned down, a tight credit market and rising interest rates made financing more difficult than anticipated. In addition, falling home values led to a steep drop in property tax collections, a key revenue source for the state agency charged with acquiring the land.

Under new terms worked out with U.S. Sugar, the state will now acquire more than 70,000 acres of land for $530 million. Florida will also retain an option to buy U.S. Sugar's remaining landholdings for 10 years. Crist says that gives Florida the ability to wait until the economy turns around before buying the remaining 107,000 acres.

Gov. CRIST: The point is to connect the lake, Lake Okeechobee, with Florida Bay and restore the natural flow. And this has been a dream of many for a long time, a long time before I got here.

ALLEN: It's a dream, though, that will now have to wait a few more years, at least until the economy improves. In the meantime, there are other benefits to the new smaller deal. An important one for U.S. Sugar workers and residents of the nearby town of Clewiston is that it preserves an estimated 1,700 jobs. For at least the next decade, U.S. Sugar Vice President Robert Coker says the company will keep running its sugar mill and refinery.

Mr. ROBERT COKER (Vice President, U.S. Sugar): U.S. Sugar will be able to continue to operate with some economic certainty, which will help our employees and help our local community leaders understand that our company is going to continue to be in existence and provide good economic jobs for our communities.

ALLEN: Despite the downsizing, environmental groups are still pleased with the deal and with Governor Crist, a moderate Republican who's consistently taken strong positions on environmental issues. Today Crist called the Everglades a special place that Floridians have a duty to protect. The problem with the Everglades is that decades of development and agriculture have diverted much of its water.

And the water that does flow south now contains pollutants that harm the fragile ecosystem. Kirk Fordham, head of the Everglades Foundation, says the 70,000 acres being acquired by the state will help address both issues, water flow and water quality in the Everglades. And he says he's not troubled by the deal's downsizing.

Mr. KIRK FORDHAM (CEO, Everglades Foundation): Everglades restoration was always intended to be conducted in phases and even if they had acquired all of the land tomorrow, they couldn't possibly begin constructing projects on all that land.

ALLEN: Fordham is confident the state will buy more land from U.S. Sugar as the economy improves. Everglades restoration, he says, depends on it. After this acquisition, he says his foundation estimates at least 50,000 additional acres will be needed to begin the long process of restoring the flow and water quality of Florida's river of grass.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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