U.S. Sugar Plans Sale of Holdings For Major Everglades Restoration

2008 Wall Street Journal 

WELLINGTON, Fla. -- U.S. Sugar Corp., the nation's largest producer of cane sugar, would go out of business in a $1.75 billion deal to sell its nearly 300 square miles of land to Florida for Everglades restoration, the company and the state's governor said Tuesday.

Under the deal, announced at a news conference with Gov. Charlie Crist and company representatives, the state would buy U.S. Sugar's holdings in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, the virtual heart of the ecosystem.

Negotiations are still ongoing, but officials hope to sign an agreement by September. Once the deal is in place, U.S. Sugar would be allowed to farm the 187,000 acres of land for six more years before shuttering its business.

Mr. Crist said the deal is "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park, Yellowstone." "This represents, if we're successful, and I believe we will be, the largest conservation purchase in the history of the state of Florida," Mr. Crist said.

The land would be used to help restore a more natural flow to the wetlands that has been stymied for years by agriculture and development. Farming in the region has long been considered a hindrance to restoration, contributing fertilizers and pollutants to the wetlands, and blocking its natural flow patterns.

The deal wouldn't end sugar production in the Everglades. At least 250,000 acres of land used by other companies would remain in sugar production.

U.S. Sugar Chief Executive Robert Bucher called the deal "monumental" but also noted he was saddened to see the demise of his company, which employs 1,700 people.

"We built a company that right now is the pillar of the agriculture community in Florida," Mr. Bucher said. "Because of that, I stand here today with mixed feelings. … On the other hand, I'm excited about what we're doing here today."

Mr. Bucher acknowledged that the sugar industry's presence in the Everglades has led to years of "partial fixes" as the state works to restore the once famed River of Grass.

Mr. Bucher said the company's decision to sell had nothing to do with profits, though the entire American sugar industry has struggled with stiff completion from cheap foreign imports. U.S. Sugar has also in recent years been facing hefty bills to clean up its water before it enters the Everglades ecosystem.

David Guest, an attorney who has fought over Everglades restoration for years and is a longtime foe of U.S. Sugar, called Tuesday's announcement a victory.