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Land Deal Would Help Restore 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.