Booting US Sugar from the Everglades

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Marc Serota / Getty

Florida governor Charlie Crist could be turning his constituents into sugar barons. And he's about to set the stage for the Everglades to come back from the dead.

At a news conference Tuesday morning near the imperiled "River of Grass," Governor Crist announced a $1.75 billion deal to buy the U.S. Sugar Corp., including 187,000 acres (75,677 hectares) of farmland that once sat in the northern Everglades. If the deal goes through, it will extinguish a powerful 77-year-old company with 1,700 employees and deep roots in South Florida's coal-black organic soil. It will also resurrect and reconfigure a moribund eight-year-old Everglades replumbing effort that is supposed to be the most ambitious ecosystem restoration project in the history of the planet.

"It's mind-blowing," said Kirk Fordham, executive director of the Everglades Foundation, before the announcement was made. "Who would have thought we'd see this in our lifetimes?"

The purchase would give the state control of nearly half the 400,000 acres (161,876 hectares) of sugar fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) below Lake Okeechobee, although sources said U.S. Sugar would lease back its land for six years. Environmentalists hope that eventually, the area will become storage reservoirs, treatment marshes and perhaps even a flow-way reconnecting the lake to the Glades. This could help re-create the original north-south movement of the River of Grass and eliminate damaging pulses of excess water into coastal estuaries. That would be good news for panthers and gators, dolphins and herons, ghost orchids and royal palms.

Crist has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Senator John McCain, and they both took a lot of flak in Florida last week when they dropped their opposition to offshore drilling. But Crist has been true to his pledge to be "the Everglades governor," replacing many of Jeb Bush's industry-friendly aides with eco-friendly appointees, blocking the legislature's efforts to eliminate funding for restoration and stopping the sugar industry from pumping polluted runoff into the lake. In a recent interview with TIME, Crist hinted that he was planning some "breathtaking changes" for the Everglades. "Putting your heart and soul into it really makes a difference," he said.

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