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The recent buyout of sugarcane fields means a key chunk of the Everglades may soon return to native sawgrass, like this in Everglades National Park.
Kim Hubbard

Let It Flow

Florida is 187,000 acres closer to saving the Everglades, and environmentalists are throwing around words—“fabulous,” “magnificent,” “ecstatic”—they generally reserve for only the greatest victories. On June 24, Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced an agreement to buy nearly 300 square miles of land from the country’s biggest cane sugar producer, the United States Sugar Corporation, for $1.75 billion. Hailed as what may be one of the major conservation deals in U.S. history, the agreement has revived hopes of fulfilling what seemed an impossible dream: restoring the natural flow of the Everglades.

Before being dammed and drained, the Everglades were truly a “River of Grass.” The wooded swamps south of Lake Okeechobee, which were drained in the 1950s to create the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, or EAA (encompassing the lands the state will purchase), once gave way to sawgrass plains and shallow marshes, through which water from the lake flowed slowly south to Florida Bay. Some of U.S. Sugar’s lands, scattered along the lakeshore, may be traded for other pieces of the EAA to create a continuous swath of reserves—and a place for water to run again from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades and ultimately into the bay.

“I never believed that this would happen,” says Jerry Lorenz, the longtime state research director for Audubon of Florida. “It really changes the entire complexion of restoration. That said, it also brings into question: What do we do from here?” The details of the purchase are set to be completed this November; after that U.S. Sugar will retain use of the land for six years before ceding it to the South Florida Water Management District. 

“This is a tremendous boost for providing the land that has always been needed for sufficient water quantity and water treatment,” says David Anderson, executive director of Audubon of Florida. Intensive farming has polluted Lake Okeechobee with phosphorus, which limits how its overflow waters can be released to ecosystems to the south. What’s been missing is a place to treat water—and as an added benefit, says David Hallac, chief biologist for Everglades National Park, water treatment marshes can provide habitat for wading birds and waterfowl. The restoration projects may also help endangered species like American crocodiles and wood storks, says Anderson.

The deal has its sticking points, though. Florida’s Miccosukee tribe is not alone in its concern that other restoration projects will be delayed in order to fund the land purchase, and U.S. Sugar employees fear for their livelihoods—both valid concerns, says Lorenz. In addition, the federal government has ponied up less than $1 billion of the $5 billion it pledged to a comprehensive restoration plan, but both presidential candidates declared their commitment to bring back the Everglades.—Alexa Schirtzinger

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