Florida closes on scaled-back Everglades purchase

The South Florida Water Management District on Tuesday closed on the purchase of nearly 27,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in a scaled-down version of the once-massive Everglades restoration project.

Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 first proposed the purchase of 187,000 acres, which the district agreed to buy for $1.3 billion. But the economic downturn caused the state to twice scale back the purchase while critics, including the New York Times, suggested that the deal was payback for U. S. Sugar’s support for Crist.

Crist and environmentalists maintained that the deal was a historic step forward for the Everglades, allowing the state to buy key parcels of land to restore flow between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades’ “River of Grass.” Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has supported the revised deal but her Republican opponent for governor, Rick Scott, spoke out against it in August.

The water management district on Tuesday completed the purchase for the 26,791 acres for $197.3 million. The governor said in a statement Tuesday the deal creates a brighter, more secure future for the Everglades.

“Today’s land purchase creates significant opportunities for Florida’s environment,” Crist said. “With these 26,800 acres, we are one step closer to making our dreams of true restoration for the Everglades a reality.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew along with representatives of the South Florida Water Management District, the Earthjustice law firm and the Everglades Foundation also heralded the deal.

But U.S. Sugar’s rival, Florida Crystals, said the purchase won’t help the Everglades because the district doesn’t have enough money to complete restoration projects. Florida Crystals executives have been raising money for Scott, who supports sticking with the earlier Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that didn’t include the U.S. Sugar land buy.

“Buying land doesn’t solve anything for the Everglades,” said Gaston Cantens, vice president of corporate relations at Florida Crystals. “They haven’t built a single project.”

(Photo provided by the South Florida Water Management District. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting brucebritchie@gmail.com.)