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US Sugar buyout: sweet deal for the Everglades?

Removing land from cane production could help save this environmental jewel.

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Sign here: US Sugar Corp. CEO Robert Bucher and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (both not shown) signed an agreement to sell nearly 300 square miles to the state. Florida Crystals Corp. operations where some land may be swapped as part of the deal.

Joe Skipper

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Banged out in secret meetings, a $1.75 billion taxpayer-funded plan to buy 187,000 acres of US Sugar's cane fields in the Lake Okeechobee basin marks one of the largest conservation buyouts of a major industry in the US, promising to break a major chokehold on the slowly dying Everglades.

But will it really work – and at what cost?

Those are the tough questions facing Floridians from Cracker families of the lake plains to suburbanites in Palm Beach. In a state usually more generous toward sun-seekers than swamp falcons, the buyout reflects a major change of political direction on behalf of the state's fragile backwaters.

What's more, the implications of the US Sugar deal could go far beyond the Sunshine State, offering a new Republican vision for downsizing polluting industries in a globalized economy while reducing – in Big Sugar's case – $2 billion in annual subsidies from Uncle Sam.

But University of Miami economist Richard Weiskoff warns that the buyout could turn out to be a backroom deal among political and industrial interests that fails to deliver salvation for one of the world's wildest and most important ecosystems.

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