Restoring the health of the vital wetlands is critical to preserving animal habitats, building resiliency against storms in an era of rising sea levels, and sequestering carbon. Historically, sugar companies have decimated much of the Everglades by filling the wetlands and growing sugar cane. Other parts of it have been drained to throw up strip malls and subdivisions.In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist — at the time he was a moderate, pro-environment Republican, but he has since switched parties — made a deal to buy 183,000 acres from U.S. Sugar. In 2011, his more conservative, Tea Party–backed, anti-environment successor, Scott, took office. Scott refused to exercise options to complete portions of the purchase, in part because U.S. Sugar decided that it could now make more money from ruining the land than from selling it. With the economy rebounding, the company decided to get into the real estate development game. It has cozied up to the Scott administration, and last summer announced plans to develop a 67-square-mile section of the Everglades.The Tampa Bay Times reported last fall:
For the past two years, as its executives were taking Florida politicians on secret hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas, U.S. Sugar was planning for a massive change in its business plan.
The company, which has been growing and processing sugar cane in South Florida since the 1930s, has mapped out a way to turn itself into one of Florida’s biggest developers.
On 67 square miles of sugar land southwest of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County, U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers of Florida, another sugar company with adjoining property, have joined forces on a project that would plop down 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of stores, offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings amid the rural landscape.
But the land that U.S. Sugar wants to designate for development is the same land that Florida officials have an option to buy for Everglades restoration. If the sugar companies’ development plan is approved, that land would be worth a lot more — making it more expensive for the state to purchase.
In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment designating billions in state funds for land conservation, which would enable the state to exercise its remaining options to buy Everglades land from Big Sugar. Jonathan Ullman of Sierra Club Florida says, “Environmentalists cheered because it was something that had been needed for so long. The land would be used to create reservoirs to store water and [to create] stormwater treatment areas … The alternative to buying the land meant worsening Everglades drought and pollution, continued coastal pollution and marine die-offs and the threat that it could be developed, cutting off the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee, its water source, forever.” That latter alternative is what U.S. Sugar wants, which is why it and its Tea Party lackeys paid people to “protest” outside the relevant government authority.
It’s a free country and everyone has the right to protest, no matter how stupid or selfish the cause. But if you can’t find a few dozen concerned citizens to hold your banners for free — in a state filled with retirees, no less — then perhaps instead of hiring actors you should acknowledge that the public isn’t on your side and give up.