LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. - It was a strategy so bold no environmentalist or state bureaucrat dared dream it could happen: Buy out Big Sugar's polluted fields, railroad and refinery within the Everglades so the wounded "river of grass" could heal after more than a century of man's industrial intrusions.
But bureaucrats and activists alike watched in giddy wonder yesterday as Gov. Charlie Crist and the head of U.S. Sugar Corp. announced a historic deal by which the state would pay $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres obstructing the natural path of the treasured Everglades.
One of the largest environmental acquisitions in U.S. history, the planned buyout of U.S. Sugar's agricultural and industrial lands between Lake Okeechobee - the heart of the unique ecosystem - and the protected territory leading to the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico should allow the Everglades to revert to marshes and waterways soon after the sugar operations cease.
U.S. Sugar will continue to lease the land from the state for the next six years to fulfill contract orders and labor commitments, U.S. Sugar Chief Executive Officer Robert H. Buker Jr. said.
He declined to say why U.S. Sugar was bowing out now when worldwide prices for the commodity are rising, but a recent federal court ruling sanctioned the company's practice of pumping dirty water back into Lake Okeechobee.
Elated players in the 50-year-old campaign to protect what remains of the fabled Everglades celebrated the news and pledged to unite the long-fractious interests of industry and preservation to take advantage of the opportunity they deemed unimaginable only a few months ago.
The deal, Crist said, had been quietly in the works for the past seven months.
Negotiations on the exact price for land tracts begin July 1 and should be concluded within 75 days, said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state's broker in the deal.
"The significance of this cannot be overstated," said Everglades Foundation senior scientist Tom Van Lent, shaking his head in disbelief at the unexpected breakthrough in the national conservation group's decades-long effort to save the natural resource.
Foundation chief Kirk Fordham praised the agreement as "an achievement of breathtaking significance and priceless value."
Crist, reveling in the afterglow of an environmental milestone of his doing, said the deal was "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park, Yellowstone."
"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, or to our country, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," the governor said.
Even Buker described the acquisition and his company's role in it as something never before seriously considered.
"This is a watershed event in national conservation history and a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida, one that would have been inconceivable in years past. Yet here we are!" Buker said just before penning the agreement of principles.
Buker said he was "sobered and not just a little bit saddened" at the prospect of putting his 80-year-old privately held company out of business and its 1,700-plus employees out of their traditional work.
Backers of the environmental rescue package, though, insisted that the lost sugar jobs would be absorbed by other cane growers and millers in the state, as well as by an expected surge in construction work and even eco-tourism, once the Everglades recover their original splendor.
The unique environment has suffered since white settlers first came to Florida in the 1890s and began dredging and planting the rich, swampy soil south of Okeechobee.
Once spanning 4,000 square miles, the Everglades now cover less than half that, hemmed in by housing development and rock mining as well as farms. Only about 10 percent of the region's original 2 million wading birds survive, and the Everglades is now home to 67 threatened or endangered species.
"Restoring the health of the Everglades is not only vital to our environment, but our economy and quality of life here in South Florida," said John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Crist presided over a ceremonial sealing of the deal in 90-degree heat atop a levee overlooking a steamy, bug-buzzed canal of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
The governor, rumored to be a potential running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, had enjoyed phenomenal and bipartisan approval ratings until last week, when he pledged support for McCain's proposal to open up offshore oil drilling, including off the coasts of Florida and California.
Most politicians in Florida oppose oil exploration for fear it could harm the state's pristine beaches.The surprise Everglades deal was a stunning comeback for the governor among environmentalists, who lavished praise for his vision and pursuit of the landmark purchase.
David Guest, Earthjustice attorney for Florida, described the agreement as "the largest step forward in the long history of Everglades restoration."
Guest said the positive effects of the deal would be immediate.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times