On Tuesday, the South Florida Water Management District bought nearly 27,000 acres of Everglades wetlands from U.S. Sugar for $197 million. The deal was much scaled back from an original proposal by Gov. Charlie Crist to buy all of U.S. Sugar’s 180,000 acres for $1.75 billion to be financed with bonds.
All but $3 million was wired to U.S. Sugar, and the South Florida Water Management District has the option of buying back the rest of the land over the next 10 years, and within the next three years at the same price of $7,350 per acre.
Crist supported the U.S. Sugar deal, and the next Florida governor will have influence over future purchases. Governors appoint members to the 16-member governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, which makes decisions on buying back parcels. Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said, “The role the next governor ought to play is to sit down with all of the owners and decide the future of the Everglades.”
The U.S. Sugar deal was a large issue in the Republican gubernatorial primary, as U.S. Sugar endorsed and supported Attorney General Bill McCollum. His opponent who ended up winning the primary, former health care executive Rick Scott, railed against the sugar deal. At a press conference outside SFWMD’s offices in West Palm Beach with members of the tea party at his side, Scott said, “The South Florida Water Management District is voting on whether or not to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars for the sole benefit of one company. The South Florida Water Management District cannot afford to purchase this land.”
He added, “Voting in favor of this sweetheart deal for U.S. Sugar places the interests of one company above those of the 7.5 million people who will end up being taxed to pay for this political favor.”
His campaign website now simply says, “Rick is committed to conserving Florida’s natural resources. Rick is committed to preserving the Everglades.” His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Scott’s 527, Let’s Get to Work, has received $100,000 from Florida Crystals, a competitor of U.S. Sugar that opposes the deal. The group also indirectly received money from U.S. Sugar, as U.S. Sugar donated $350,000 to the Florida Liberty Fund on Sept. 15 and 16. Then, on Sept. 16, Florida Liberty Fund transferred $250,000 to Let’s Get to Work. The News Service of Florida also reported that U.S. Sugar gave $2 million to Scott’s campaign.
Florida CFO and Democratic nominee for governor Alex Sink supports Everglades restoration. Her campaign writes, “Because funding at the federal level has been woefully inadequate in past years, Alex will provide the strong leadership that’s needed to expedite federal approval of restoration projects and to ensure more federal funding which was part of the 50/50 state/federal partnership.” Her campaign also did not respond to a request for comment on the U.S. Sugar deal.
Though this particular deal with U.S. Sugar is all but done for the 27,000 acres, the next governor will have influence — as Gov. Crist did — over how much land will be restored.
Luke Johnson reports on Florida for The American Independent.