Booting US Sugar from the Everglades

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Marc Serota / Getty

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The end of U.S. Sugar would clearly have ramifications. Florida Crystals, the agribusiness controlled by the well-wired Fanjul family, would be all that's left of Big Sugar. Founded by General Motors executive Charles Stuart Mott in the Everglades back in 1931, U.S. Sugar currently produces 9% of America's sugar — thanks to a massive federal water-control project that its executives helped design and a lucrative federal sugar program that artificially boosts its prices. The company has always been popular in its headquarters of Clewiston ("The World's Sweetest Town"), but labor activists have accused it of mistreating its workers and environmental activists constantly blame the firm for ravaging the Everglades.

Big Sugar did block the flow and suck the water out of the Everglades, converting its saw grass marshes into cattail clumps and inspiring one of the most contentious pollution lawsuits in U.S. history. But ever since the litigation was settled in the mid-1990s, Big Sugar has done an impressive job of cleaning up its act, and development has become a much greater threat to the health of the Everglades. Still, U.S. Sugar executives have often warned that they might build condos someday, and environmentalists have dreamed of locking up their land.

Now their dreams appear to be coming true. They're about to become part-owners of Big Sugar. "This could be a game changer," said Everglades activist Alan Farago before the press conference was held. "The biggest obstacle has always been the EAA. Now we can try to salvage restoration." There are still plenty of details to be worked out, like how the state will raise cash during a fiscal crisis, and the sugar industry has a troublesome history in Florida. The Crist administration will have to negotiate land swaps with Florida Crystals, and it will have to figure out what to do with a mill, a refinery and a railroad that are now property of the state. And there's no doubt that the new opportunities for water storage in the agricultural area will require a revamping of the original restoration plan from 2000, which envisioned hundreds of underground storage wells. But that's a good thing; the storage wells would have been ridiculously expensive, and the original plan was dead in the water.

The Everglades has been under siege for more than a century, in part because it doesn't look the way people expect environmental treasures to look. "To put it crudely," wrote Everglades National Park's first superintendent, Daniel Beard, "there is nothing in the Everglades that would make Mr. Johnnie Q. Public suck in his breath." If Crist can reverse the flow of history and help the Everglades flow again, that really would be a breathtaking change.

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