Environmentalists Criticize New York Times Everglades Story

River of Grass
TAMPA (2010-3-11) -

A recent New York Times investigation questioned the price tag, environmental value and the politics of the deal with U.S. Sugar to restore the Everglades. But several environmental activists say the New York Times allowed itself to be used as a tool of Crist’s enemies.

The headline on the New York Times website sums it up: "A Deal to Save the Everglades Could Rescue U.S. Sugar Instead."

The story has upset several Florida environmentalists, including lawyer David Guest, head of the Florida chapter of Earthjustice:

"That’s not accurate. That’s not a correct representation," he said. "You will not find a responsible environmentalist in the state of Florida that does not say that in a strong, clear voice."

And here’s Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation:

"I think that it doesn’t paint a completely accurate picture," said Fuller. "There was a suggestions that there was something nefarious. I think they sort of blew up the political intrigue angle on this more than they needed to."

The story questioned why Crist abandoned a plan by former Gov. Jeb Bush to build a huge reservoir and try a largely-untested method of the large scale injection of water into aquifers.

The New York Times story hinted the change was meant to benefit U.S. Sugar and its law firm, where Crist's ally, U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, was a partner.

Alan Farago of the group Friends of the Everglades says Crist abandoned the Bush plan because of science.

"Gov. Bush is quite critical of the U.S. Sugar deal, but in fact, the plan that he advocated and committed a billion dollars to was also based on very, very uncertain technologies and investments," Farago said. "For instance, the largest man-made reservoir in the world, which is now sitting off U.S. 27 in a state of half-completeness."

Environmentalists are upset that the story targeted Crist’s ties to U.S. Sugar, but failed to highlight the connections involving Crist’s opponent, former House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Jeb Bush hasn’t officially endorsed Rubio, but he’s said in an interview that he’s proud of Rubio and what he’s done.

And Rubio and Bush both have ties to Florida Crystals – the big competitor to U.S. Sugar which opposes the land preservation deal.

According to the Palm Beach Post, Rubio has received more than $14,000 from the Fanjul family, which owns Florida Crystals, and the company’s chief lobbyist.

Alan Farago says Florida Crystals has long been opposed to Everglades restoration.

"This corporate interest has always played out their role in the Everglades restoration drama as one of delay and litigation," said Farago. "It happened throughout the 80s and 90s, and it’s happening now in the case of this ambitious plan."

Guest thinks Rubio should have been mentioned in the story.

"The article looks like it was heavily spun by the Fanjuls," Guest said. "It’s a shot by the Fanjuls and the Bush people at the governor. And I think it’s a low blow."

New York Times reporter Damien Cave says the story has been in the works for months, and Rubio is not relevant to it.

"The reason he’s not in the story is because, that wasn’t a part of this story," Cave said. "We spoke to people like Jeb Bush because he was relevant to Everglades and Everglades restoration."

The New York Times article also questioned Crist’s deal with U.S. Sugar for its cost.

The article says, “the price tag and terms of the deal could set back Everglades restoration for years, or even decades.”

Cave says several sources maintain U.S. Sugar land was overvalued by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"There have been serious questions raised about the cost of the purchase for a long time," Cave said. "We talked to a lot of people who know far more about land sales than we do who questioned the cost of this and who told us the state likely did overpay, in part because the appraisals were based on outdated comparable sales."

Environmentalists say it’s impossible to judge the value of this land deal, and bring up former Secretary of State William Seward’s purchase of Alaska for $7 million – known at the time as Seward’s Folly.

"It’s like asking Seward, what’s the comparable price for Alaska," Guest said. "Well, there is no price for Alaska. People thought it was an insane price to pay for Alaska. But in retrospect, it was a very wise move.

Fuller says the price may be high because of the quality of the soil, compared to surrounding land.

"The deeper muck soils that U.S. Sugar has are generally among the more valuable soils in the Everglades agricultural area," Fuller said. "So I don’t think the Times got into that aspect of it."

Cave says opponents of the land deal, such as Florida Crystals and the Miccosukee Indian nation, are upset with the story, too. They say the New York Times went too easy on Crist.

"Those who love the deal and those who hate the deal are unhappy with elements of the story," said Cave. "That’s just the way it goes when you do an investigative piece like this."

Cave questioned whether environmentalists are rallying around Crist because they really want this land deal – and overlooking some of its shadier aspects.

To listen to the full interviews with Guest, Fuller, Farago and Cave, click here.

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