Land Deal Would Help Restore Everglades U.S. Sugar, the nation's largest producer of cane sugar, announced Tuesday it will go out of business and sell about 300 square miles of Florida land to the state government. The decision is being called a major step to help restore the Everglades.
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Land Deal Would Help Restore Everglades

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Land Deal Would Help Restore Everglades

Land Deal Would Help Restore Everglades

Land Deal Would Help Restore Everglades

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U.S. Sugar, the nation's largest producer of cane sugar, announced Tuesday it will go out of business and sell about 300 square miles of Florida land to the state government. The decision is being called a major step to help restore the Everglades.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Florida, officials announced the biggest land conservation deal in the state's history today. The U.S. Sugar Company has agreed to sell all of its holdings to the state for $1,750,000,000. The deal is a major boost for efforts to restore the Everglades.

From West Palm Beach, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: The agreement involves 187,000 acres of land, nearly 300 square miles, south of Lake Okeechobee in an area that forms the headwaters of the Everglades. Sometimes called the River of Grass, the Everglades used to be an ecosystem where a sheet of water flowed continuously south from Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Time, flood control, development and agriculture have reduced that flow to a trickle, endangering the unique ecosystem that's home to alligators, crocodiles, and the Florida panther.

Florida governor Charlie Crist announced the deal at a wildlife refuge not far from sugarcane fields that soon will be returned to wetlands.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida, and the people of America as well as our planet, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration.

ALLEN: Nearly nine years ago, the federal government developed a new plan for restoring the Everglades, but it didn't deal with a key part of the Everglades problem: the hundreds of thousands of acres used for sugar production, huge plantations that released nutrients and pollutants into the Everglades' ecosystem.

The announcement that one of the state's biggest sugar companies, one that had farmed the area for nearly 80 years, was now ready to sell out caught nearly everyone by surprise.

U.S. Sugar CEO Robert Buker denied the company's economic health was a factor in the decision to sell, saying sugar prices are at an all-time high. But he said he still has mixed feelings.

Mr. ROBERT BUKER (CEO, U.S. Sugar Corporation): On one hand, I'm sobered and not a little bit saddened by the prospect in transition that lies before us. On the other hand, I'm excited by what we're doing today.

ALLEN: U.S. Sugar is a privately held company which turned down an offer last year to sell for a reported $575 million. Florida's offer is nearly triple that. The money comes from cash and bond holdings Florida set aside for Everglades' restoration. But while it may be a good deal for U.S. Sugar, environmental groups say it may be an even better deal for the Everglades.

The Sierra Club's Jonathan Ullman said this will now it make possible to restore the natural flow of the Everglades, something that hadn't seemed possible before.

Mr. JONATHAN ULLMAN (South Florida Representative, National Sierra Club): The alternative to supplying the water would have been to build these deep wells, and that would have come out to many billions and they didn't even know if that was going to work. So this is really the best option.

ALLEN: At today's announcement - while environmental groups, federal and state officials, and U.S. Sugar celebrated the deal - there were a few dissenting voices. They are the people dependent on sugar for their livelihood, people like Ardis Hammock, whose family has sold sugarcane to U.S. Sugar since the beginning. Her reaction…

Ms. ARDIS HAMMOCK (Owner, Frierson Farm): Devastated. Because we're U.S. Sugar's friend, our family farm has never sold to anyone else. We grew up with them. My husband's uncle pioneered with them. Hopefully, friends will continue to take care of friends.

ALLEN: Under an agreement signed today, U.S. Sugar will keep farming and refining sugar at its South Florida plant for the next six years. CEO Robert Buker says that will help ease the transition for the company, its suppliers, and its nearly 1,900 employees.

Greg Allen, NPR News, West Palm Beach.

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Florida Gains Everglades Land from U.S. Sugar

Florida is buying 187,000 acres of South Florida land from U.S. Sugar Corp., a move that will boost efforts to restore the Everglades, state officials said Tuesday.

U.S. Sugar will hand over the farmland to Florida for $1.75 billion; the company is then expected to go out of business in six years, company and state officials said.

Most of U.S. Sugar's land is south of Lake Okeechobee, in an area vital to the Everglades' health. Announcing the agreement, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) said the deal provides a long-sought "missing link" that will help restore the natural flow of water from Okeechobee south to Florida Bay.

"This represents — if we're successful, and I believe we will be — the largest conservation purchase in the history of the state of Florida," Crist said.

The Everglades wetlands is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and it is home to rare and endangered species, such as the American crocodile and the Florida panther.

Details still have to be worked out, but U.S. Sugar Chief Executive Officer Robert Buker said he expects shareholders would receive $350 a share.

The company would keep using the land to produce sugar for the next six years and provide a severance package for its nearly 1,900 employees to ease the transition.