The area being proposed for sale lies north of the Everglades near Florida's giant Lake Okeechobee (see map).
Around the turn of the last century, ambitious developers built the first of a series of canals to drain this region so it could be used for human habitation and agriculture.
(Related news: "Huge, Freed Pet Pythons Invade Florida Everglades" [June 3, 2004].)
Much of the land has been used since the 1930s to grow and process sugar cane into granulated sugar.
According to the company's Web site, U.S. Sugar produces about 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the county's sugar production.
While the operation provides about 1,700 jobs, it has also contributed to degradation of water quality in the area.
Water that flowed through cleansing marshes a century ago now carries heavy loads of phosphates and nitrogen from farmlands.
And instead of being part of the filtration system, Lake Okeechobee is used as a giant reservoir for agriculture, while much of the water is routed away from the Everglades via canals.
State representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a member of the Florida Legislature from Miami, said he's optimistic that the state will continue its support for Everglades restoration.
Environmentalists, however, are uneasy.
"The issue I have, as thrilled as I am about the land sale, is how on Earth are they going to engineer this," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
"Until we get those details, I think we have to worry."
The restoration project includes rebuilding part of U.S. 41, which runs through the heart of the Everglades between Tampa and Miami.
When the highway—known as the Tamiami Trail—opened in 1928, it was hailed as a milestone for Florida's development.
But the road also acts as a giant dike interrupting the flow of water through the Everglades.
Rebuilding the federal highway to restore the natural flow of water is supposed to be paid for by Congress.
Carol Wehle, executive director of the SFWMD, said she and others hope the purchase of the sugar firm will push Congress into action.
The federal government needs to restore water flow under the Tamiami Trail, or the land purchase is for naught, Wehle said.
If the deal is finalized in November, U.S. Sugar would continue its operations until 2014, when it would "turn the keys over" to the water management agency, said company vice president Robert Coker.
During this transition period, the district would meet with consultants, hold public hearings, and lay out its plans for the land.
Private engineering firms and construction companies would then handle the work, SFWMD's Wehle said.
The land would be used for a series of reservoirs and holding ponds that would clean the water before it is released into the Everglades.
While the region would not look the same as it did a century ago, "it would be performing the same function," Wehle said.
Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation scientist, said the importance of restoring the Everglades goes beyond merely preserving a unique ecosystem.
"The Everglades is reliant on the people of South Florida, and in turn the Everglades provides a water supply for a great deal of the population in South Florida," Van Lent said.
"It's a symbiotic relationship, and we haven't kept up our side."
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