Is Glades Restoration Project In Trouble?

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Starting today, the mayor, the governor and dozens of environmental activists are getting together at the Hilton to discuss the future of the Everglades, which is timely, since the state's proposal to buy $1.34 billion of farmland from U.S. Sugar is now facing a legal challenge from rival Florida Crystals Corp.

If Florida Crystals succeeds in convincing a judge to kill the deal, the state would lose control of 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land, which Gov. Charlie Crist has said he wants to use for Everglades restoration.

But is the deal the best use of taxpayer money? More after the jump. Environmental groups seem to think the deal makes sense for taxpayers, but rivals of U.S. Sugar say otherwise. Gaston Cantens, a Crystals VP, recently told the Palm Beach Post that the billion dollar plan will effectively sap away money for other Everglades restoration projects already underway.

And Cantens isn't the only one who is upset. Small sugar growers say the deal is as much about big business as it is about the environment:under the deal U.S. Sugar is allowed to lease back the roughly 180,000 acres at a quarter of the market rate to keep farming for seven years, and maybe even longer if there are delays in getting restoration projects underway, giving U.S. Sugar a competitive edge over other sugar growers.

But environmentalists say what Florida Crystals really wants is to stop the plan so they can swoop in and buy the financially struggling U.S. Sugar.

At tomorrow's conference, high-level federal and state officials will talk about how restoration should proceed after the U.S. Sugar deal goes forward, if it does in fact go forward. Gov. Crist is the keynote speaker tomorrow night.

"While the deal is not perfect, perhaps the naysayers cannot see the forest for the trees," Sara Fain, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, writes in a Sun-Sentinel editorial published today. "The very ability to manage water -- provide drinking water, prevent flooding and maintain basic ecosystem functions-- is at stake, and the opportunities made possible with this land are key to long-term success or failure."

"America's Everglades are suffering. Every day that we don't move forward on restoration, this intricate ecosystem breaks down a little more."

--Jesse Hyde
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