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Everglades Coalition, Foundation Offer State of Florida Suggestions for Managing Land Acquisition


How the state of Florida manages nearly 200,000 acres north of the Everglades will have a significant impact on the health of the "River of Grass" and its resident wildlife. Photo courtesy of the Everglades Foundation.

In June the state of Florida announced a bold move to help the Everglades by purchasing nearly 200,000 acres north of Everglades National Park from U.S. Sugar Corp.

That move stands to prove invaluable to the national park. It will, figuratively speaking, straighten a kink in the natural plumbing of the region. Developments such as the sugar plantation have disrupted natural water flows from the lake into the park. Without them, the so-called "River of Grass" can't survive. In an ecosystem dependent on water, the importance of the U.S. Sugar deal can't be understated.

However, just as vital is what the state of Florida decides to do with that acquisition, which is now being referred to as the "Everglades Agricultural Area." Two groups that work in the best interests of the Everglades have some thoughts on how the EAA should be managed, ranging from enhanced water storage to a return to natural water flows from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades.

"The announcement of this purchase is monumental. As negotiations are under way with landowners, we must ensure that enough lands in the right areas are protected to help restore our River of Grass," says Sara Fain, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition and Everglades Restoration Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "We urge the state to consider our recommendations as it proceeds in negotiations to achieve full restoration benefits."

In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan envisioned a restored Everglades without incorporating the EAA that consists of the 187,000 acres the state of Florida is buying from U.S. Sugar.

Recommendations being suggested by the coalition and foundation include:

* Expand existing Storage Treatment Areas for water quality improvements by at least 12,000 acres, and increase overall treatment capacity by 45,000 acres;

* Provide at least 1-1.5 million acre feet of storage to alleviate drought conditions in the Everglades and mitigate damaging pulses to the estuaries;

* Look to maximize the natural connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades and consider all options for restoring flow through the EAA.

The groups' complete list of recommendations is attached below.

"With this land acquisition, we have the opportunity to design a new regional master plan that restores the Everglades and provides new job opportunities for the comunities surrounding Lake Okeechobee," says Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. "Local and state officials should avoid reckless and premature decisions that could limit our options for both Everglades restoration and economic development."

The Coalition and Foundation say the health of the Everglades is not only vital to the environment, but also the economy and quality of life in South Florida. However, the group remains sympathetic to concerns in the community that this may have on the local economy. With that in mind, the Coalition and
Foundation recommend that state and local governments promote sustainable agriculture and maintain the region's economic viability in a way that is compatible to restoration.

"It is critical to ensure that economic development initiatives are compatible with restoration objectives," says Lisa Interlandi, senior counsel for the Everglades Law Center. "Thus, we are asking local governments to refrain from making land-use changes or approving new development until restoration plans for the region are completed."

At the Florida Oceanographic Society, Executive Director Mark Perry says as the state moves forward with its plans for the EAA and the overall restoration of the Everglades, it's vital that the federal government demonstrate "sustained commitment to support and fund the plan that will restore the health and natural sheetflow of America's Everglades."

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