Mar 13, 2010

Everglades update--where is the voice of Nature at the negotiation

Florida's scatterbrained Governor Charlie Crist who will travel 500 miles a day just for a photo op to gain another higher level job, has let us down again.
We applaud the NY Times for a very in depth article showing how the promises of saving the Everglades from the sugar companies has turned into a possible real estate investment boon for the US Sugar. We have taken what we feel are important selections of the article below

Nearly two years later, the governor’s ambitious plan to reclaim the river of grass, as the famed wetlands are known, is instead on track to rescue the fortunes of United States Sugar.

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.

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.

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

Negotiations favored United States Sugar from the start, when the state accepted two outside firms’ appraisals of the company’s land that used figures from the height of the real estate market, according to documents.

When a “fairness opinion” commissioned by the state found that those appraisals had overvalued the land by $400 million, Florida officials orchestrated a public relations campaign to discredit the findings, internal e-mail showed. Appraisers from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which was required to sign off on the deal, were also cut out of the process after raising concerns, e-mail messages showed.

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.

In the meantime, more than a dozen projects under way as part of a 10-year-old federal and district restoration effort have been suspended or canceled in anticipation of the cost of the United States Sugar deal. Among them is a massive reservoir in western Palm Beach County that was seen as a major step toward restoration of the Everglades. In total, $1.3 billion had already been spent on the projects, according to an internal water district document.

In its current form, the deal’s only clear, immediate beneficiaries would be United States Sugar, a privately held company based in Clewiston, Fla., and its law firm, Gunster, which is expected to collect tens of millions of dollars in fees for its work on the sale, according to current and former United States Sugar executives.

The sale, scheduled to close March 31, amounts to a lifeline for the company, which entered negotiations at a time of profound weakness; it was facing a costly shareholder lawsuit, sinking profit margins and increased foreign competition. The deal would enable it to wipe nearly all the debt from its books.

Environmentalists had long sought to restore the historic flow way, or waterway, from Lake Okeechobee south through the glades and into Florida Bay, a dream that had been hampered by more than a century of piping, dredging and development. The flow way required land owned by United States Sugar and its chief competitor, Florida Crystals, both of which refused to sell for years.

When the state began negotiating its ambitious plan to save the Everglades, key players were, notably, not invited.

Missing from the table, according to interviews and e-mail messages, were Miccosukee Indian tribe members, some of whom live in the Everglades; the Florida Crystals Corporation, the other major landowner in the area; and the federal agencies that partner with the state on restoration efforts.

But internal district documents revealed that the land had been overvalued by the two firms that performed the independent appraisals. Both relied on figures from 2004 to 2008, when a speculative real estate market had prices soaring.

If the current prices had been used, the state would be paying far less. For example, while the water district agreed to pay United States Sugar nearly $7,000 an acre for citrus land, it is now selling for $4,000 an acre, independent appraisers said recently in interviews.

“What you have is just another step in the category of kicking the ball down the road and chasing it,” said Alan Farago, the conservation chairman of Friends of the Everglades.

The above from the NYTimes, "Deal to Save the Everglades may help sugar firm"
Published: March 7, 2010 By DON VAN NATTA Jr. and DAMIEN CAVE
entire article is @
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/us/08everglades.html?pagewanted=1&dbk

Sadly Florida has always been scarred by the dual threats of the absolute beauty of the place and the generally(save for July, August, and hurricanes) favorable weather but the fragility of the place as well.

It may seem blasphemous but the best thing for most of Florida is to have no humans at all. But that is unrealistic so we must continue to try and balance the interests of agriculture, tourism, housing, and on occasion as was intended in the purchase of the Everglades originally, Nature.


If there could be a better attempt to value Nature from a financial standpoint then what Florida has would be a gold mine.
There is eco tourism and fishing and boating in the Everglades but with most non naturalist members of the state, any monies spent on the Everglades may be considered a waste.
Even though they are close, a Brickell Ave condomium is worlds away from the middle of the Everglades.

Perhaps this is the future of the Everglades success. Some smart congressman should mandate annual Everglades school trips for students from grades 5 to 9. The next generation of Floridians would realize just how special the Everglades is and do things to protect it.

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