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The Florida Everglades, you've heard of them. Lots of crocodiles live there, endangered wetlands. Well, environmentalists have been sounding the alarm for years, saying these wetlands have to be restored in order to revive fragile ecosystems and increase scarce freshwater supplies. The U.S. federal government tried to kick start the restoration in 2000, but it never really panned out. Now the state of Florida is taking things into its own hands.

Earlier this week, Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist announced a plan to buy up 187,000 acres of former Everglades wetlands from a sugarcane producer in order to restore the lands. Advocates say this plan is the largest restoration project in U.S. history. To explain what's so special about the Everglades and what this project hopes to accomplish, we've enlisted the help of Nick Aumen. He's an aquatic ecologist scientist with Everglades National Park and he's been working with water in Florida for more than 17 years. Hey, Nick. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. NICK AUMEN (Water Quality Branch Chief, Everglades National Park): Good morning.

MARTIN: So we're going to talk about the deal with the sugar producer and the sale of that property in a minute, but first I want to talk a little bit about the Everglades. For people who have never visited Florida or who aren't into environmental science, explain why it's so important or why so many advocates have been pushing for so long to restore them.

Dr. AUMEN: Sure. I guess I'd start that by saying there's really only one Everglades in the world. It's this beautiful, large, 1.4 million acres of subtropical wilderness down here at the tip of Florida. It's certainly the only such wilderness in Florida, and organizations across the world have recognized it is an international treasure as well. It's been given a number of international designations, and I think people from around the world recognize it for what it is. And in addition, just to be in the Everglades, it's also - in terms of just being wetlands, there's an important contributor to, you know, why wetlands are important for us as human beings.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. So, clearly, so many tourists go there every year and it's regarded as such a treasure, but what difference does it make in how we live our lives? What difference does it make that we keep these wetlands around?

Dr. AUMEN: Well, like many important natural ecosystems, wetlands provide what we call ecological services. They're important for human beings. They're very important features in any landscape, but you know, I guess, one of the first things that comes to mind is they're primary habitat for hundreds of species of water fowl, other birds, fish, mammals, plants. And wetlands also are what I call filters. They filter water that sometimes is running off from agricultural and urban areas, helping remove pollutants, and that water may end up back in our water drinking tap. So that's really important.

They also act like giant sponges, and they flow the flow of surface water and reduce the impact of flooding. In fact, a lot of people believe that the recent flooding in the upper Mississippi would've been a lot less had we not destroyed so many of the flood laying wetlands that were part of that natural system. You know, wetlands prevent soil erosion, and I guess, more recently, a lot of interest has been paid to global warming and climate change. And like any plants, wetlands that contain plants can remove and store greenhouse gasses.

MARTIN: So, the federal government clearly thought that this was something important to pursue. In the year 2000, they passed something called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. How did that work out?

Dr. AUMEN: Well, that plan was the first time the Corps of Engineers and other agencies took a hard look at this big plumbing system we have here in south Florida that provides water supply and flood control to, you know, six or seven million people right at the southern end of Florida here. And that was developed - it was authorized by Congress in 1948, developed over the next 30 years, but in return, cost a lot of ecological damage. And this CERP, this C-E-R-P, the plan that you just referenced, was a plan - and is still a plan - to go and look what can be done to modify that big plumbing system to provide water for the environment, yet still ensure flood protection, water supply. It was authorized in 2000 and, you know, has been underway now for nine years or so.

MARTIN: So, now the state of Florida has stepped in to kind of speed up this process. They're going to buy all this land, thousands of acres from a sugar plantation. How's this plan being received?

Dr. AUMEN: I think people are very excited about it. It was certainly a surprise to a lot of people. It was one of the best-kept secrets during the month that it was apparently under negotiation, so it was received, I think, first with surprise and then with a lot of excitement. For those not familiar with the geography down here, the Lake Okeechobee, which we call the liquid heart of South Florida, just south of that is a 700-acre Everglades agricultural area, which is mostly sugarcane but also other winter vegetables.

And then south of that is the remnant Everglades, and further south is Everglades National Park. So, this land is being purchased upstream of what we're trying to protect and restore, and I guess one of the reasons we have a lot of excitement about this is this land being back in the public ownership eventually gives us a lot more options in terms of restoration.

MARTIN: And what's the timeline, finally, on this, Nick? For six years, the sugar producer gets to keep producing sugar on that land, so the state doesn't get to take it over for six years. How long will it take before you start seeing some real resurgence of those wetlands?

Dr. AUMEN: Well, if we look back to the last major land purchase anywhere like this, in 1999, I believe, or 2000, the federal government acquired about 50,000 acres from agricultural interests and it took probably, all said, about 10 years - nine or 10 years - before some of those projects are under way. So it does take a long time for a deal of this magnitude to fall into place, for the details to be worked out. Especially it looks like, from what we're hearing, is that in order to realize some of these restoration benefits, land swaps may have to be conducted with other landowners.

MARTIN: And this is a good first step in that direction. Nick Aumen is a scientist at Everglades National Park. He's the head of the water quality in Everglades' program team. Hey, Nick, thanks very much for helping us out today. We appreciate it.

Dr. AUMEN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up on the show, after I enjoy this delicious Fresca...

MIKE PESCA, host:

Mm.

MARTIN: Why the FCC might crack down on product placement.

PESCA: Fresca, the only diet, grapefruit, carbonated beverage I know.

MARTIN: No, Hansen's actually had - no, that wasn't diet. Fresca is best!

PESCA: Diet, carbonated...

MARTIN: Delicious.

PESCA: Grapefruit. That's where it's at.

MARTIN: This is the BPP for NPR News.

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