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A Lawsuit And Public Outcry: A Busy Week In The Everglades

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Tricia Woolfenden

The soon-to-wrap Python Challenge isn't the only headline-making activity in the Everglades this month. Florida's imperiled wetlands have been the focus of several contentious issues in the past week.   

Most notably, a lawsuit was filed by the Florida Wildlife Federation against Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet over Everglades restoration. The issue at hand: land deals signed in January that grant two sugar cane farming companies continued access to 14,000 acres in west Palm Beach County.

The action was filed on the Florida Wildlife Federation's behalf by Earthjustice, a non-profit "public interest law organization" whose past battles have included taking the Environmental Protection Agency to task over "weak air pollution standards." 

Sun Sentinel reports; 

The disputed leases, approved in January, were part of a collection of state land purchases and trades aimed at acquiring farmland that could be used to store and clean up stormwater needed to replenish the Everglades, but several environmental groups...objected to the deal also allowing polluting agricultural operations to remain in place for 30 years on the 14,000 acres of state-owned land that was once part of the Everglades. 

South Florida companies A. Duda and Sons and Florida Crystals were able to hold onto the leases -- initially negotiated in 1994 -- by making land trades and sales elsewhere in the state. For their part, the companies argue the legal action will stall the state's efforts to make acquisitions needed for continued restoration. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection stands by the details of the no-bid leases, which would allow for expanded stormwater treatment in Palm Beach County, it said. 

A Miami Herald story quotes Earthjustice lawyer David Guest as saying, "This is obviously not in the public interest. These leases would allow corporate agricultural pollution to continue unabated, and there is no requirement for additional cleanup."

No Billboards On Public Land, For Now

Meanwhile, an unpopular proposal that would have allowed for billboards on public land died a public death this week after local and national media called attention to the details. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) -- whose primary tasks include Everglades restoration and water quality -- agreed in December to allow for large electronic signs to be installed on public lands it oversees as a way to bring in revenue. The Miami Herald's Carl Hiaasen said of the law "even in a state of perpetual sleaze, some dirty deals stink more than others."

Hiaasen writes; "The water agency's staff, parroting the coy language in the law, refers to these digital monstrosities as 'public information systems.' The term billboard is being avoided like an embarrassing disease." 

SFWMD, which "owns more than 1 million acres from Orlando to the Keys," dropped the proposal on Tuesday, according to the Sun Sentinel, which reports that public outcry motivated the district to distance itself from the billboard issue. The Audubon of Florida weighed in, saying "water managers don't have time to spare for billboard management."