In her book, "The Everglades: River of Grass," Marjorie Stoneman Douglas wrote: "There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth..."
Those opening words from Douglas' seminal work capture the uniqueness of the ecosystem and also could be used to characterize the author herself, who fought so hard to protect her "River of Grass."
In the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rose to the top of her list of enemies. In an effort to minimize seasonal flooding on what is now agricultural land, the Corps built a complex system of canals, levees and pump stations to protect what is now agricultural land and real estate.
In 2,000 the government launched what is now the largest restoration project in history to restore the natural flow of water in the Everglades. And this week the effort was given a major boost when the nation's largest producer of sugar cane announced it was selling two massive tracts of land to the state of Florida and going out of business.
In one of the largest conservation efforts in U.S. history, the nation's top sugar producer agreed to halt production and sell its Florida crop land. The $1.7 billion deal between U.S. Sugar Corporation and the State of Florida retires nearly 300 square miles of sugar production back into Everglades environmental protection.
Gov. Charlie Crist, R – 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. Thanks to U.S. Sugar Corporation, we have a strategy to acquire almost 187,000 acres of land. That's almost 300 square miles."
U.S. Sugar will farm the 187,000 acres for six more years before the State of Florida takes possession and begins to protect the land from development and sugar production. U.S. Sugar Corporation currently produces 700,000 tons of cane sugar per year and accounts for 10% of the entire domestic sugar production.
More than 1,700 U.S. Sugar Corporation employees will lose their jobs as part of the landmark deal, although company executives claim stock options, severance packages, and state-based retraining will be offered. Employees and local business leaders have questioned the secret negotiations between U.S. Sugar and the State of Florida. Some local taxpayers accuse the State of "bailing out" a floundering sugar industry – a claim refuted by company executives.
U.S. Sugar points the finger at cheap foreign imports from countries like Brazil and Thailand as a major pressure on industry profits. But Florida Governor Charlie Crist emphasizes the main purpose of this week's decision was environmental and not economic.
Environmental concerns have haunted much of Southern Florida and the Everglades for years. Farms and land development have impeded the natural flow of water through the wetlands. Environmental groups blame farm fertilizers and other chemicals for causing additional damage to the region known as the "River of Grass".
Everglades restoration has developed massive funding shortfalls in recent years. In 2000, the U.S. Congress approved $7.8 billion over a 30 year span to revitalize the region. But rising real estate and construction costs have sent those figures skyrocketing.
Under the current Florida-U.S. Sugar negotiations, state officials say they'll build a network of reservoirs and marshes to filter water flowing into the Everglades. Florida environmental groups claimed victory this week but concede Everglades protection and revitalization is far from completion. The State of Florida plans further negotiations with U.S. Sugar Corporation as well as a series of individual farms throughout Southern Florida.