Land Deal Raises Hopes for Everglades Restoration

The Everglades is a vast wetland that once covered most of South Florida. Since the 1800s, agriculture and other development have replaced much of the original wildlife habitat. Now, a proposal by the region's biggest sugar producer to quit farming and sell its land to the state for permanent conservation has raised new hopes for the Everglades ecosystem. And as Véronique LaCapra reports, it could give a big boost to restoration efforts. 

The Florida Everglades is the largest remaining subtropical wetland in the United States. But over the past century or so, half of the floodplain has been drained for human use. In the late 1940s, a massive government engineering project built roads, canals, and levees, to make even more dry land and fresh water available for farming and other development. The project drastically altered the flow of water in the Everglades, destroying approximately 5,000 square kilometers of wildlife habitat.

All this has brought a rapidly expanding human population – about 7.5 million people – in close contact with an ever-more vulnerable ecosystem.

Nick Aumen is an aquatic ecologist for the Everglades National Park, which protects the southern part of the original Everglades. In what used to be the northern part of the wetland, a huge agricultural area now covers more than 2,800 square kilometers.

He says that in the Everglades Agricultural Area, crops can be grown almost year-round. "We're a major source of winter vegetables for much of the United States, and South Florida's also a major producer of sugar – of sugarcane, for the United States."

Producing sugarcane and other agricultural crops takes fertilizer – plant nutrients, such as phosphorus. Mark Kraus is an ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports Everglades restoration. He says that while phosphorus may be good for sugarcane, it has been devastating for the Everglades' plants, which need very low levels of nutrients.

"The Everglades are adapted to about 10 parts per billion of phosphorus," Kraus explains. "When you add a lot of additional phosphorus, it promotes the growth of other plants that aren't natural to those low-nutrient systems."

Changes in water flow, nutrient pollution, and invasive species have all taken their toll on the Everglades, eliminating 90 percent of the wetland's former two million wading birds, and bringing almost 70 species – including panthers, alligators, and crocodiles – closer to extinction.

And as Nick Aumen explains, restoration projects have been expensive, and slow to show results. "The Everglades are the site of some of the largest and most expensive restoration projects in the world."

Aumen says that perhaps the biggest restoration effort was begun in 2000, and is projected to take as long as 35 years to complete and is estimated to cost as much as $18 billion.

Recent restoration efforts have focused on energy-intensive engineering projects, including a controversial plan to pump water from Lake Okeechobee in and out of underground aquifers to control flooding and water availability.

But according to Mark Kraus, a proposed land deal could change all that. "This land purchase is going to allow us to restore the Everglades more quickly, in a much less engineered fashion, and in a much more sustainable way."

At the end of June, the state of Florida proposed to buy out U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest sugarcane producer in the United States. The deal would take more than 750 square kilometers out of production, to be replaced by large water storage areas and artificial wetlands.

Mark Kraus says the deal presents a really exciting opportunity for Everglades restoration. "I have been involved in this Everglades restoration project for over 12 years now," says Kraus. "We always thought that the right way to do this would be to be able to acquire some agricultural land […] and provide these large areas of water storage and water cleansing."

But the deal has its problems. Under agricultural cultivation, the area's peat soils have subsided by more than a meter, and getting water to flow south again will take some engineering.

What's more, U.S. Sugar's holdings are scattered throughout the region, so the state will have to negotiate land swaps with other sugarcane producers to recreate a continuous flow-way to the Everglades.

And under the current terms of the deal, no restoration projects will begin anytime soon: U.S. Sugar gets six years to transition out of farming.

Nick Aumen cautions that seeing environmental benefits from the more than 75,000 hectare buy-out could take even longer. A previous government land acquisition took ten years to start restoration in an area less than a third that size. "So it would not be surprising for us if this took as long, especially because it's a much larger land area."

But Aumen and Kraus agree that if the deal between the state of Florida and U.S. Sugar is successful, it could bring about unprecedented environmental benefits to one of the world's most beautiful – and threatened – ecosystems.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs