A long-awaited front page report in the New York Times this morning takes a critical look at the US Sugar deal initiated by Gov. Charlie Crist. It is not favorable or flattering on the cost and terms accepted by the state and the South Florida Water Management District.
In its own front page report yesterday, The Miami Herald notes, "Property values in the 16 counties that pay the district's bills have dropped an estimated 16 percent since 2008. In a February letter made public Friday, the district's outside financial advisor warned that mounting deficits -- projected to hit $110 million by 2012 -- could force "very difficult decisions."
In the New York Times, a quote of mine follows mention that under the terms of the deal US Sugar will continue farming on some of the land for at least seven years. "What you have is just another step in the category of kicking the ball down the road and chasing it."
It is not a flattering comment either, but it was made in the context of a complicated discussion about environmental groups that spent decades on bits and pieces of legislation and results for an ecosystem that needs big and bold moves to restore it. The Herald gets to this critical point: "Because Big Sugar was off-limits, engineers originally planned around it, concocting an uncertain $1 billion scheme to hold water in hundreds of wells deep underground. But a decade of study since, honed with computer and climate models, showed the Glades need more water and places to store and scrub it."
That is exactly right. A decade ago, environmental groups "kicked the ball down the road" when they embraced -- during the first Clinton term-- an Everglades restoration plan that was a workaround of Big Sugar. The $7.6 billion plan included $3 billion of idiotic aquifer storage wells that anyone with an ounce of common sense knew could not succeed. We could argue a long time, whether taking that half loaf at the time was a wise decision or not. I don't think it was. The big environmental groups who always have their eye on living to fight another day, to kick the ball down the road until they can catch up again, did. My view was that the polluters should have been held accountable, then and there, but it was not a choice that was politically palatable to Clinton who counted Big Sugar as money friends.
Some key environmental groups made similar errors of judgment supporting Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to put his stamp on Everglades restoration through a billion dollar program called Acceler8. Bush comments in the Times, for the first time, on the deal engineered by Crist. He is "deeply disappointed" and says, "on a net basis, this appears to me to there has been a replacement of science-based environmental policy for photo-op environmental policy." That is just nonsense.
Bush's projects were not only workarounds of Big Sugar; they incorporated technological fixes whose scientific underpinnings were weak as compacted sand and would take decades to workaround.
Gov. Charlie Crist deserves praise for taking a bold step for the Everglades. Are the terms to buyout US Sugar -- now, only part of the original lands-- as favorable as they could have been to the public? Did those terms take into account the time release economic depression Florida is mired in? No. But Crist is hardly alone in believing we had to pay the going price because the revival of sprawl is just around the corner.
I strongly disagree that this is "a deal done backwards", as described to The Herald by the Fanjuls spokeperson. The Fanjuls have and will object to every single measure that impinges on their property rights to extract maximum value from lands they own that are critical to Everglades restoration. They will use every opportunity, and have, to rezone their lands in the Everglades: for rock mines that aren't needed, for inland ports that aren't needed, and for suburban sprawl and electric utility plants that aren't needed. They aren't needed but these rezonings drive up the value of their lands to the public. In this way, the Everglades are a clear example of socializing risk and privatizing profit.
Cantens tells The Herald: "It's not driven by science. It's not driven by need... It was driven by one person's political ambition and one company's necessities." In fact, it is the Fanjuls and the Miccosuckee Tribe who are driving the push to kill the US Sugar deal. The Fanjuls are also supporting Marco Rubio for US Senate, and drive a deeper stake into the heart of Everglades restoration.
Friends of the Everglades, the organization for which I am conservation chair, supports the acquisition of US Sugar lands and more: the acquisition of whatever lands owned by its competitor, Fanjul family sugar interests, to make sensible connections (called "a romantic adherence" in the Times) between Lake Okeechobee to the north and public lands to the south.
Moreover, I have great respect for a governor who would wade into the swamp and not be opportunistic at its edge like his predecessor with the plan for Scripps in wetlands, for Ave Maria College in wetlands and turning water pipes everywhere into spigots for campaign contributions.