Florida makes huge land deal in bid to save Everglades

WELLINGTON, Fla. — The state of Florida and the nation's biggest sugar grower Tuesday unveiled the details of what would become the largest environmental acquisition in state history, a $1.7 billion buyout of 187,000 acres of farmland that Gov. Charlie Crist called the ''missing link'' in the stalled effort to restore the Everglades.

"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," the governor said during a ceremony at a treatment marsh in the Everglades.

Under the proposal, expected to take 75 days to finalize, U.S. Sugar Corp. would sell some 300 square miles along with two massive refineries, 200 miles of railroad and other assets to the South Florida Water Management District.

The company would then continue farming for six years under a lease with the state before ending operations.

The district hopes to swap some of the company's holdings with those of other sugar growers, opening a massive swath south of Lake Okeechobee to construct reservoirs and pollution cleanup marshes that would resolve two of the restoration effort's biggest problems — the water is still too polluted and there isn't enough of it to restore the natural flow of the River of Grass.

Bob Buker, president of U.S. Sugar, said he was saddened at the thought of a deal that would effectively end his company's long history of farming in the Everglades, but also heartened that it could resolve some of the state's most serious environmental issues.

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