Planet Earth

Selling out the Everglades

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 10, 2010 5:13 PM

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Remember the old saw, "I have some prime swampland to sell you in Florida..."

As this law blog notes, the saying

is based on events of the 1960s and 1970s where local scammers would attempt to induce out of state purchasers to acquire "lucrative" land which, in reality, turned out to be worthless, undevelopable plots.

Well, it sure looks as if a variation of that scam has played out in the late 2000s. But this time it was Florida Governor Charlie Crist who got fleeced, after he purchased a swath of farmland in the Everglades from Big Sugar. The cane fields are supposed to be reverted back to wetland, a key piece to the famed river of grass. At least that's how the plan, to much fanfare, was unveiled two years ago. Monday's devastating New York Times investigation reveals that this vaunted deal to save the Florida Everglades (which had already been considerably scaled back in terms of obtained acreage),

is instead on track to rescue the fortunes of United States Sugar.

Longtime Everglades watchers (and I'm one of them) will not be surprised by this turn of events. In fact, I can hardly wait for Carl Hiaasen's next Miami Herald column, which is sure to feast on the sorry particulars uncovered by the Times, such as this:

United States Sugar dictated many of the terms of the deal as state officials repeatedly made decisions against the immediate needs of the Everglades and the interests of taxpayers, an examination of thousands of state e-mail messages and records and more than 60 interviews showed.

Of course, Hiaasen, who, more than anyone, has colorfully and memorably chronicled Florida's sleazy politics, will be shocked...shocked, at these revelations. But here's the important part of the story that people--especially greens-- seem to be overlooking. As the Times reports:

Efforts to restore the Everglades have picked up urgency in the last decade: the sprawling subtropical wetland, the only ecosystem of its kind, is dying for lack of clean water. Many environmentalists remain convinced that Mr. Crist's deal with United States Sugar, even in its downsized form, offers the Everglades its best hope.

Got that? Many environmentalists are going along with the deal. Here's the next graph in the Times piece:

But documents and interviews suggest that the price tag and terms of the deal could set back Everglades restoration for years, or even decades.

In addition to the cost (which is money that could have been used to speed up existing restoration projections), how might the deal set back the larger effort? Here's the knife in the heart to Everglades ecologists:

When it came time to decide which land to buy, state officials acknowledged that United States Sugar was, as one official put it during an interview, "pretty much in the driver's seat." The water district overseeing the restoration will end up with six large disconnected parcels under the current deal, including all of United States Sugar's citrus groves. State officials acknowledged that some of that land, which has been ravaged by canker, a plant disease, is useless for restoration.

Useless for restoration. If that's really true, then this is indeed a scam deal that should outrage anyone who cares about the Everglades. Now the politics of the Everglades have long been as murky as its waters. I have some familiarity with this history because in the early 2000s, I wrote a bunch of stories on the Everglades for Audubon Magazine when I was an editor there, and helped put together an Everglades special issue. I also covered some of the more controversial elements for Science Magazine. This was at a time when the $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was being finalized. That's a whole other can of worms, which Michael Grunwald has covered in its entirety better than anyone. Anyway, I was curious to see if establishment greens, such as Audubon and the Sierra Club, who are enthusiastic supporters of the Governor's deal, have been given pause by the recent Times investigation. So far, National Audubon has been mute, and so has the magazine's blog. Audubon of Florida, its politically influential state office, emulates Pravda in this post from yesterday on the deal, not even mentioning the Times story. The Sierra Club is also keeping quiet, its boosterish position apparently unchanged from this press release last month. Meanwhile, some environmental commentators, perhaps unaware of this entanglement, are viewing the Times' disclosures through a narrow lens. But even if you read through the Times' long piece, you'd see plenty of evidence of mainstream greens still rationalizing the deal. Yet, here's Tom Laskawy's take in Grist:

I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this report other than U.S. corporations continue to extract billions from taxpayers as easily as taking candy from a baby.

How simplistic. This deal doesn't happen without the assent of establishment greens, such as Audubon's national and (very well connected) state officials. They've provided the green cover for the Governor. For the sake of the Everglades, I hope they made the right, politically calculated bet. So far, though, it's not looking that way.

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