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Sweet deal for the Everglades

In a deal that environmental groups said would be the largest ecological restoration in the country's history, a plan for the state to buy the nation's largest producer of cane sugar was announced Tuesday by the governor and officials of U.S. Sugar Corp.

The intention is to restore the Everglades by restoring the water flow from Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of the state, south to Florida Bay.

That flow had been interrupted by commercial farming and the Everglades have suffered as a result.

Under term of the tentative deal, U.S. Sugar would continue farming and processing for six more years.

Then it would close the business and allow 187,000 acres of land to return to its natural state.

For its part, the state would pay U.S. Sugar $1.7 billion.

Gov. Charlie Crist said the deal was “as monumental as the creation of the nation's first national park, Yellowstone.”

Environmental groups hailed the undertaking.

“This is putting it back the way it was in 1890,” said David Guest, a lawyer with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

“When you come back in 20 years, it will look indistinguishable from the way it looked before the white man.”

Margaret McPherson, a vice president of the Everglades Foundation, said: “I'm so proud of my governor and my state. We are doing something smart and thoughtful and something for the future.”

Negotiations to complete the deal were not complete, but state officials said they hoped to sign a contract in September.

Robert Buker, the chief executive of U.S. Sugar, said he was saddened at the prospective demise of the company, which employs 1,700 people.

But, he said, “it's the dollars and cents, and it is the right thing to do.”

Ardis Hammock is an owner of Frierson Farm, which has grown sugar cane for decades, selling to U.S. Sugar.

“I've lived my life for sugar,” she said. “My husband has worked sugar for 35 years.”

The state will buy all the U.S. Sugar land and production facilities, including a new mill and a railroad operation and “a half-eaten pastrami sandwich in the refrigerator,” Buker quipped.

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