for National Geographic News
Despite financial uncertainties and legal challenges, Florida officials are proceeding with a U.S. $1.34-billion plan to restore the Everglades to something approaching its natural state.
The plan, to be decided by September, would see the state buy farmland, some of which would be converted into reservoirs, which would filter pollutants from water before it flows into the vast, troubled wetland.
The purchase would encompass 180,000 acres (73,000 hectares) that the United States Sugar Corporation has used for decades to grow sugarcane in South Florida. (See "Everglades Rescue 'Out on a Limb' Without Federal Aid" [July 3, 2008].)
Opponents of the Everglades plan, including sugarcane company Florida Crystals, say the deal would further strain government budgets already stressed by the recession and give an unfair subsidy to U.S. Sugar.
The Everglades, a UN World Heritage wilderness, includes Everglades National Park and thousands of miles of adjacent wetlands, mangrove swamps, and islands home to many species found nowhere else, some of them endangered.
The Everglades ecosystem has suffered from human activities over the past century, including agricultural pollution and drainage. Canals were dug decades ago to siphon water for rapidly growing cities and to create land suitable for development.
Florida officials want to use part of the U.S. Sugar property to build reservoirs to purify water before releasing it into the Everglades. Another sizable chunk of the land could be leased to agribusinesses for farming.
If the state does not buy the land, many conservationists say, the Everglades could be doomed.
"The purchase is more than important," said Tom Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation in Miami. "It's absolutely essential."
But even with the support of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who helped craft the deal with U.S. Sugar last summer, the deal faces hurdles.
For starters, the current sluggish economy has choked tax revenues and made it difficult and expensive to borrow money.
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