Monday, March 02, 2015

More on Big Sugar's Big Squeeze, The Estuaries, the Everglades and Florida taxpayers … by gimleteye

Recently an anonymous reader commented on land ownership in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the deal to acquire US Sugar lands. The best chance for the taxpayer investment in the Everglades, to save what is left of the rivers and estuaries and billions in property values, is being snuffed out by the silence of the state legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

The anonymous echoes Big Sugar's talking points -- dont buy more land, "stay the course". The course we are on serves the scavengers and reef wreckers just time.

At issue: the Legislature and Gov. Scott's refusal to take up the purchase of lands owned by US Sugar Corporation in the Everglades Agricultural Area. (Read our earlier post, here.)  GOP party leaders -- facing little to no opposition from a Democratic Party in Florida -- are going for the jugular now that the full impact of an election cycle after Citizens United is visible. They (Adam Putnam, Ag Secretary is leading the way) are rewriting water pollution laws to guarantee the further degradation of Florida waters and real estate values on the coast, all the while trumpeting that they are doing God's work.

Moreover, they are hard at work to subvert the will of 78 percent of Florida voters who approved Amendment 1 in the last election cycle; a guaranteed source of funding for exactly the land acquisition that is needed to protect the Everglades and the estuaries on both coasts.

Big Sugar is on its own jihad to the press, distributing talking points to news organizations that are unable to parse the difference between propaganda and reality, calling to mind exactly what Karl Rove predicted in his triumphant boast to the New York Times more than a decade ago: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

So here are my responses to anonymous; his/her in quotes and mine, below.

"It should be acknowledged that none of the scientists working on Everglades "restoration" wanted this deal - not one of them."

Why should (it) be acknowledged, when the assumption is false?

For the most part, Everglades scientists are uniformly in agreement about the need for significant additional fresh water storage and treatment marshes, beyond lands already in various public ownership entities like the water conservation areas or lands purchased for future engineered water management components.

The writer continues, "The SFWMD knew this would be a death knell for the projects already planned and ongoing."

Again, that is a false narrative. Here is the fact: beginning with the Jeb Bush terms in Tallahassee as governor in 1998, a Kremlin Winter descended on discussions about the Everglades by District or state scientists.

Taking land out of sugarcane production was a "no-fly zone" for Florida politicians, enforced by an orthodoxy that hardened into cement thanks to Citizens United and the tsunami of campaign money by insiders and special interests tying Big Ag to land speculators.

When Gov. Rick Scott took office, one of his first acts was to immediately slash the science capacity of the District to the bone. Scientists employed by the state will not speak for the record, outside of talking points approved by government PR staff, for fear of a career-ending catastrophe by political hacks.

The net effect of compulsory silence has been for District and state science to follow policies determined not just at the District level but also at the state legislature, where committee agendas and legislative outcomes are controlled by Big Sugar lobbyists.

The "death knell", according to the anonymous writer, should be acknowledged to be a failure of political will -- vindictiveness by politicians and campaign contributors against citizens and environmentalists who demand that BOTH additional lands be acquired and existing projects be funded.

The writer continues, "SWFMD staff tried to warn the environmental groups not to support this deal, but no one would listen..."

If there is proof environmentalists were "warned" by water management district staff not to support the deal to acquire US Sugar by the state, let those environmentalists step forward.

Were environmentalists threatened by elected officials and lobbyists that their support for prescriptions beyond predetermined outcomes could jeopardize funding for the Everglades by Congress? Absolutely.

The threat of withdrawal of funding is the single, constant tactics by Big Sugar, seeking to steer environmental groups away from advancing policies that could undermine policies and regulations that accrue to their own net worth statements.

"... and then to their (enviros) amazement and derision (but to no surprise of SFWMD employees) after the scaled-down deal was approved the SFWMD announced that they no longer could afford to work on several efforts including the EAA reservoir and the second phase of the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands."

False. The EAA reservoir was entangled in federal litigation by environmental groups. In fact, the District itself argued in court that the reservoir was in the wrong place and should be built in lands acquired by the state from US Sugar, while the location for the reservoir was best used as a vast treatment marsh; ie. that additional storage lands are needed.

The Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands was undone by state politics and by the surging cost of land during the 2000's housing boom in Miami-Dade.

If anonymous should "acknowledge" anything, it is that state budgets are first and foremost, political choices. The choice to turn Amendment 1 into a real-life Ocean's Eleven, where the thieves walk into the casino and take all the house money, is unfolding right now in the Florida legislature where -- instead of fulfilling the wish of the people to use Amendment 1 money to fulfill the option to purchase US Sugar lands, Big Sugar is aiming to loot the treasury for its own purposes.

The scaled-down deal for US Sugar the writer refers to, occurred nearly as soon as Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010. Sadly, when he helicoptered into Tallahassee, Gov. Scott had little to no understanding of state water management history or of the importance of supporting the deal for the full acquisition of US Sugar lands in the EAA.

The anonymous writer echoes arguments by Big Sugar lobbyists and political allies in the state legislature at the time, that even in its scaled-down version, it was an "either/or" with existing, critical Everglades storage and treatment projects.

Let's be clear: the "either / or" argument as applied to the proposed purchase of US Sugar lands was a political choice by elected officials hostile to citizens and environmentalists who have worked for decades to promote common sense, science-based decisions to restoration of the Everglades, protection of the estuaries, and Florida's future.

The writer continues: "The fact is this was, and still is, a bad deal and not helpful to anyone except US Sugar, who was on its way to bankruptcy when Gov. Crist stepped in to save them. The Fanjuls laughed at this deal all along because the secret no one wants to acknowledge is that these lands aren't tradeable. They were and still are marginal ag lands and there is very little chance they would be ripe for a successful development beyond rockmining. So why would the Fanjuls give up better quality ag parcels for these lands which they could have had long ago?

The US Sugar deal was a needed, important and indeed critical expense for the reason I cited in my previous blog: that critical land-swapping deals -- either through willing sellers or through eminent domain -- would provide the land accumulation necessary to the purpose or require state negotiators to tell the public the truth: the Fanjuls obstruct progress at every turn.

Mysteries around the US Sugar agreement to sell to the state of Florida linger because none of the parties directly involved, US Sugar or former Gov. Charlie Crist, have been willing to speak on the record.

Nor have the Fanjuls, except through political donations and the periodic forays in its media campaigns. So far as the Fanjuls are concerned -- whether they are "laughing" or whether the Charlie Crist deal caused Pepe and Alfie to blow their stacks -- they already traded at a 2-1 ratio to their land acreage for properties that had been owned by US Sugar in order for the state to expand one of the existing stormwater treatment areas. So don't shed any property-rights tears for the Fanjuls.

Here is what is true: Big Sugar has dominated all state politics related to land acquisition in the EAA and blocked every effort by environmentalists to speed restoration beyond its ineffectual "work-arounds". There is not a major parcel of former sugar lands acquired for restoration that does not have an identified project either built, under construction or authorized and soon to be under construction.

The writer concludes, "I shudder to think what would have happened to the current Everglades enhancement effort if the original $1.2 Billion deal had gone through instead of the scaled-down version. As staff tried to tell the environmental groups at that time, and I will reiterate today, save you political capital for an effort that will matter - this isn't it."

Don't shudder. Be calm.

The false choices supported by special interests are exactly what drove citizens to support the amendment to the Florida Constitution to remove the argument "we don't have the money to do the right thing." Now, with Amendment 1 -- approved by 78 percent of Floridians -- the money is available.

Big Sugar says, "stay the course". So did the captain of the Titanic as subordinates warned him against steaming through an iceberg field.

So if the public has the money -- through Amendment 1 -- and the elected officials will not use it to buy additional lands necessary to protect Florida's environment, quality of life, and property values of residents and users of estuaries, then what? The pity is that there are plenty of Republican voters who are property owners, who love their rivers and estuaries and Everglades. They voted for Rick Scott and legislators like Joe Negron. What has that gotten them? Less than zero.


Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in filling in the details about who the Fanjuls are, try visiting this website:

There are interesting parallels between the Kochs and the Fanjuls: What Koch is to the oil industry, the Fanjuls are to the sugar industry. Money talks.

You could also do some research into the Fanjul family in Cuba. When Castro kicked the Fanjul family out of Cuba, they came to Florida, where cane was grown on only 50,000 acres. That soon soared to over 150,000 acres and the related destruction of the Everglades, all funded by us, the taxpayer.

Amd people wonder why I'm a cynic ...

Anonymous said...

As one accumulates gray hairs and wrinkles, it is difficult to not become a cynic. Nevertheless, we cant. We must continue fighting the good fight and teaching our kids to do the right thing and stand up for fairness and justice, no matter how many buffoons are out there.

Anonymous said...

As the author of that anonymous post, I was surprised, but quite pleased that you took the time to craft a well reasoned, point by point response to my position on the proposed purchase of US Sugar lands south of Lake Okeechobee. Unfortunately, as I made clear, you and I do not agree on the value of the proposal, or many of the facts associated with key events that have surrounded it. Also somewhat unfortunately, you dismiss (almost with an air of condescension, but I recognize that the written word is a limited medium so I do not believe that as intentional on your part) as false certain factual information that I know to be true from these historical events. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree based upon each of our personal experiences and observations of said events, but I'd like to share a little more on what I know of this subject and to clarify a few of your points if I may. First, don't get me wrong, I fully support purchasing lands throughout South and Central Florida (including in the EAA) for the purpose of storage and treatment to enhance the Everglades system, and as you noted, so do almost all scientists who have worked or are working in the Everglades. What I oppose is what I consider to be a waste of taxpayer dollars on THIS proposed purchase, and it is THIS proposed purchase that the SFWMD leadership, staff and scientists at the time were opposed to. This is not a false premise as you state, but a known fact by those who were knowledgeable of the inner workings of the SFWMD at the time. Second, while you indicated at least twice in your response that you felt my statements were following Big Sugar or political talking points, I can assure you I speak for myself and have no reason to support either Big Sugar or any Florida politicians. While I choose to remain anonymous (as your co-blogger GoD does), I can assure you that all of the points I made were accurate, and were presented from the standpoint of someone who witnessed them occurring as a member of the SFWMD staff during that period. There were the briefings where the District's leaders and scientists made very clear their true position on the US Sugar deal. They did not want it, period. They knew they could not afford it. Further, there absolutely were informal warnings to environmentalists from SFWMD staff, and the reaction from various groups when projects were cancelled as a result of the money needs of the District were quite real. (continued…)

Anonymous said...

I know more of the details than I can say, but hopefully it will suffice that I was present at the District when the votes were occurring and certain Board members were put under such incredible political pressure to try to force their vote in the affirmative that I thought they would resign rather than vote for what they had even concluded was a bad deal (and those votes took place during the Christ administration, not the Scott administration by the way). Some specific corrections: the deal was scaled down not because of Gov. Scott's administration as you imply (although he clearly did not support the proposal as a candidate and even held a press conference at the SFWMD headquarters during one of the Governing Board meetings where the item was being discussed), but as a necessity due to the ongoing housing crash/recession (it was in full swing by then), and the obvious expectations of lower revenues. Quite simply, the bonding agencies would not back the bonds at that point unless the dollar figures were revised downward significantly. Remember, the final approved deal was actually the third or fourth iteration of the proposal, all proposed during the Christ administration (by the DEP Secretary who was the lead negotiator), and all revised downward to make it more palatable financially. Additionally, it was a well known fact that the SFWMD fully intended to re-start the EAA reservoir project (the word internally was that the legal issues were close to being resolved, or at least it was felt that there was a way to proceed while the lawsuit played itself out)and to do Phase II of the BBCW (for that project, plans were being retooled/redesigned to avoid lands that were too expensive to purchase either willingly or through eminent domain and only use lands already on hand). All that changed once this deal was approved by the Governing Board, and all funding for those and other CERP projects was pulled out of necessity (recall that the announcement of that decision was made during the 2009 Everglades Coalition meeting in Miami). I understand that you have strong feelings on this and have fought these battles for a long time Gimleteye, but part of the point I was trying to make is that you have limited clout on these issues, and the Everglades needs so much more than just these lands and this deal to survive and possibly recover. Using huge amounts of capital on a deal that, as I said before, is not a good use of taxpayer money, is like banging your head against a brick wall and expecting to not get a headache. And in the end, the State still did not and will not pull the trigger on the deal. I know, you believe every fight is worth having, but I do not agree. This one is a losing battle, and its not even the right work in the right location anyhow - look, you know Larry Fink, go ask him yourself if you don't believe me. One final thought - a former USACE Col. who was instrumental in the CERP program once told me something that always stuck with me. There will always be "noise" from multiple sides in major projects like CERP, but most of that is unworkable. What really got his attention was when several groups from differing viewpoints came to the table together and worked out compromise they could all live with. Hopefully, there is still room to find common ground for the Everglades, but everyone has to recognize that winning at all costs is not a viable strategy, because it won't happen and the Everglades loses in the end.